Is Hong Kong's rule of law becoming a victim of political expediency?
How time flies. Nearly six months ago Lai See raised the question of those "sensitive" legal cases which are still pending. One case involved Henderson Land, controlled by billionaire Lee Shau-kee, and the probe into its controversial luxury development at 39 Conduit Road. The firm was investigated by the police following complaints of unfair and non-transparent transactions. In March the police announced, some four years after it started its probe, that it was dropping the case. In a statement, the police said, "After consulting the Secretary for Justice and conducting investigations, the police deemed that there wasn't enough evidence to make a criminal prosecution." But the undue amount of time it took to arrive at that decision raised concern within the community.
The other case Lai See mentioned six months ago involved Citic Pacific, which is accused of defrauding at least three banks in obtaining HK$1.75 billion in loans. The case was initially investigated by the Securities and Futures Commission. It completed its inquiry in 2010 and handed the case to the Department of Justice, where it has remained ever since. There have since been a number of court hearings relating to documents seized by police. But in six months there appears to have been little if any progress, at least none that we are being told about.
In July last year Lai See was hauled over the coals by the then-director of public prosecutions Kevin Zervos for suggesting politically sensitive cases were sitting in his in-tray. This we were assured in no uncertain terms was not the case. Yet almost a year later and with a new director of public prosecutions the community is none the wiser as to what is happening with this case. The adage that "justice must not only be done, but must be seen to be done" does not just mean being able to turn up at the High Court and watch a trial. The police and the Department of Justice are the gatekeepers of the process, they are the bodies that control the cases that are brought to court. You can have excellent judges that produce good judgments, but that's only once these cases have been brought to court. If sensitive cases aren't acted on expeditiously, then the community has every right to ask what is going on.
And while we're on politically sensitive issues, let's not forget the matter of former chief executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen. He was referred to the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) in February 2012 after undue schmoozing with tycoons. Writing in this newspaper a few months ago a former director of public prosecutions, Grenville Cross, said: "It should, within months, have been possible for the ICAC to interview witnesses, examine records and decide if the case was pursuable." This view is supported by former ICAC officers who are aghast at the way the organisation has handled the case. In any case Tsang himself admitted several of the trips at issue.
In the meantime we had the unsavoury case of former ICAC chief Timothy Tong Hin-ming, who according to a Legislative Council report was guilty of "deplorable overspending" on entertainment, some of it in the company of the central government's liaison office officials. This raised questions about the "independence" of the ICAC. As with these other "sensitive" cases, this has taken an unnecessarily long time. In his piece Cross says the ICAC needs to deal swiftly with the Tsang case to restore confidence in the organisation which has been tarnished by Tong's behaviour: "Nobody will understand this better than the current director of operations, Ryan Wong Sai-chiu, a principled veteran, but the fact that even he has not been able to move things along is a real concern and may suggest that other forces are at play."
Since we all apparently believe that justice should be seen to be done, and because these cases are taking an exceptionally long time to process, the community should be told what's happening. A favourite mantra that slips so easily off the tongues of government officials is that one of the features that makes Hong Kong a special place for doing business is its adherence to the rule of law. This is an important issue for Hong Kong as the rule of law is touted as one of its competitive advantages over the mainland. It would be a shame if Hong Kong's rule of law was allowed to become a victim of political expediency.
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