Not such a bargain

PUBLISHED : Friday, 09 August, 1996, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 09 August, 1996, 12:00am

When a dangerous criminal can threaten the lives of prominent civil servants and lawyers, and then claim to have scored a victory over the legal establishment, there is cause for serious concern.

Wong Kwai-nam may be exaggerating the scale of his success. The hate campaign has put him behind bars and failed to achieve its aim of forcing the release of his older brother, Wong Kwai-fun. But Kwai-fun has avoided facing charges over this unpleasant affair after yesterday's plea bargain, while Kwai-nam has also got off lightly. Nine charges have been dropped, and he will now serve only an extra 14 months for threats that could have led to a further 14 years in jail.

This should not be used as a reason to attack the whole concept of plea-bargaining. Especially at a time when the judiciary is struggling to control waiting lists, such deals are a vital part of the legal process. By helping to avoid unnecessary trials, they speed up the administration of justice in reducing the time taken to hear other cases.

But they must always be based upon purely legal criteria. If the prosecution is unsure it has the evidence to convict, and a defendant will admit to some charges, a deal is in everyone's interests. Unfortunately, in this case, there are good reasons for suspecting political factors were allowed to influence the process, helping the Wong brothers to secure such a one-sided deal.

Without this, Acting Governor Anson Chan Fang On-sang would have been forced to testify to the threats against her. The Legal Department says she was not consulted. But, when he agreed to the deal, Director of Public Prosecutions Peter Nguyen can scarcely have been unaware of the political embarrassment a court appearance would cause at this most sensitive point in Mrs Chan's career.

This sends a dangerous message to other criminals: suggesting that if they choose victims who will be reluctant to appear in court, they can escape serious punishment. In this case, it is far from clear that justice has been done.