Hong Kong has regrettably lost a long-running battle in the Spanish courts to have a high-profile fugitive accountant sent back for trial in connection with an alleged multimillion-dollar fraud case. In a landmark ruling last week, Spain's highest court ordered that Gabriel Ricardo Dias-Azedo - who allegedly fleeced investors out of more than HK$90 million and was arrested in a casino in the Spanish city of Salamanca in 2010 - be freed on the grounds that Hong Kong, not being a sovereign state, had no power to ask for his return.
The ruling has understandably aroused concerns whether runaway criminals can evade the long arm of justice. But it can be argued that the outcome underlines problems with the Spanish legal system rather than ours. The Mediterranean country, after all, was once seen as a haven for fugitives fleeing from neighbouring countries. Since the 1997 handover, the international community has generally recognised that we manage to preserve the common law system and judicial independence under Chinese rule. Spain's refusal to surrender Azedo for trial in Hong Kong courts should not be seen as too alarming. If anything, it stands out as an international anomaly and reflects poorly on Spain's understanding of our legal system.
It is hardly surprising that the "China argument" has been used to convince the Spanish court that Hong Kong, not being a sovereign state, has no right to extradite fugitives under a UN convention against corruption that has been invoked for the first time by the Hong Kong government.
At present, we only have extradition agreements with a dozen or so countries. Had Spain been one of them, the outcome could have been different. There is a need for the government to speed up talks on rendition agreements with more countries. Otherwise, it will send the wrong signal to criminals that the arm of justice is not long enough to reach them.