Rules for the transfer of crime suspects overdue

PUBLISHED : Friday, 07 February, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 07 February, 2003, 12:00am

The arrest of alleged hitman Yang Wen in Hunan for a murder committed at a teahouse in Hong Kong has, once again, raised the vexing question of where cross-border suspects should be put on trial.

Early indications suggest that he and other suspects in the case may be returned to the special administrative region (SAR), setting a striking precedent. In the past mainlanders who commit cross-border crimes have been tried on that side of the border.

Secretary for Security Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee revealed yesterday the government would ask the mainland authorities to transfer the suspects and said their return would be welcomed.

If the men are to be tried in Hong Kong this will mark a positive step in the protection of the SAR's legal system under 'one country, two systems'. It would comply with the usual practice in common law jurisdictions such as Hong Kong that suspects are tried in the place where the crime was committed.

However, if the suspects are returned, it will be as a result of negotiations between the two governments, rather than a formal rendition agreement governing what should happen in cases of this kind. The lack of such an agreement means that decisions on whether suspects are to be tried before a judge and jury in Hong Kong, or in a mainland court where they may face the death penalty, are made in an arbitrary fashion.

Discussions aimed at establishing a rendition agreement were launched as a matter of urgency in 1998, when the Hong Kong government faced criticism for failing to prevent the mainland trial and execution of one of its citizens, gang boss Cheung Tze-keung, for offences committed on both sides of the border.

They have continued over the years but there is still no sign of an agreement being reached. Renewed effort is needed. One major stumbling block may be that any arrangements are likely to require Hong Kong to return suspects to the mainland to face trial for offences committed there. But this could be overcome by striving to secure an effective guarantee that they will receive a fair trial and will not face the death penalty.

Unless agreement is reached, uncertainty and controversy will continue to attend cases such as the teahouse murder.