Rendition issue back on agenda

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 November, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 29 November, 1998, 12:00am

I DO not think anyone sees this as a priority,' a senior Department of Justice official said, when asked a few months ago about progress on negotiating a rendition agreement with the mainland.

Secretary for Justice Elsie Leung Oi-sie also left legislators with the impression that the issue of returning suspects had been put on the back-burner when questioned about it shortly before the recent controversy over the trial of Big Spender, Cheung Tze-keung, in Guangzhou. That initially might have been the wish of government lawyers, who seemed wary of venturing into such a politically explosive area, and taking on another task to add to an already-heavy workload.

But it now seems clear it was never the view of the Security Bureau, which handles policy in this area. Even before the Big Spender controversy, there had been exploratory talks with mainland authorities, apparently including the Ministry of Public Security and Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office. A paper given to legislators last week revealed that preliminary discussions on the issue had also begun with Guangdong authorities as far back as April 1996.

Nor were these talks entirely lacking in substance. The need for guarantees that any suspects sent back to stand trial would not be executed has already been raised with Beijing, although it seems there has been no response yet.

Now the concern over the Big Spender case, and that of alleged Telford Gardens poisoner Li Youwei, has catapulted the issue up the agenda, prompting reports yesterday that Secretary for Security Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee hopes to lead a team of officials to Beijing next month to begin detailed discussions on the issue. Despite her department's apparent earlier lack of enthusiasm, Ms Leung has pledged to give full support to such efforts.

Officials have clearly been stung by the concerns raised by the Big Spender trial, even though they dismiss these as largely the work of a small group of highly vocal lawyers and academics, and believe there is relatively little concern among the public over Cheung's trial.

But the Government frankly admits that Li's forthcoming trial raises more serious issues of jurisdiction than Cheung's. Officials do not deny that police morale may have suffered from the controversy over the decision to hold this in Shantou rather than the SAR, although they insist such effects have been exaggerated. This explains why Ms Leung has now written to her Guangdong counterparts requesting that the Hong Kong press be allowed to attend the trial.

It is also now clear the Government did initially explore with mainland authorities the possibility of Li being brought back to face charges in Hong Kong. But they were firmly rebuffed and so did not pursue the issue. A formal request would, in any case, have carried the danger of opening the floodgates to similar requests for other fugitives to be sent back in the opposite direction, from the SAR to elsewhere in China.

These cases have also brought to light other shortcomings in cross-border liaison work. Although there is now excellent co-operation between Hong Kong and mainland police, this does not extend to the judicial arena. This meant the SAR representatives attending Cheung's trial in Guangzhou never saw a complete list of the charges he and his gang were facing.

It also explains how the administration were taken by surprise when this was published in a local newspaper, revealing that Lau Kwok-wah, one of the accused, had only been charged with crimes committed in Hong Kong.

This undermined the administration's argument that the cross-border nature of the offences justified holding the trial in Guangzhou. It also left officials insisting unconvincingly that Lau was also being tried for his involvement in crimes committed on the mainland, although these were not listed against his name on the charge-sheet.

Nonetheless, despite such slip-ups, there is now a welcome recognition within Government of the importance of the issues raised by these trials. The administration has clearly taken note of the concerns raised, and begun to place greater priority on working towards a rendition accord. And for that it deserves some credit.