Fraud case fugitive Azedo freed by Spanish court

Top court’s decision to free accountant following extradition battle calls into question Hong Kong’s legal standing

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 19 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 19 February, 2013, 6:02am

A fugitive accountant wanted over an alleged multimillion-dollar fraud has been freed from custody in Spain after that country's highest court called into question the independence of Hong Kong's legal system.

The Constitutional Court of Spain ordered the release of Gabriel Ricardo Dias-Azedo after a battle to have him extradited that has lasted more than two years. The court argued that Hong Kong had no power to ask for his return because it was not a sovereign state and did not have a reciprocal extradition treaty with Spain.

In a legal first, Hong Kong officials had been trying to secure the return of Azedo, 65, under the UN Convention Against Corruption, a multilateral agreement adopted by 140 signatories, including mainland China and Spain. The Spanish government had earlier approved the request from Hong Kong, as a part of China.

Azedo appealed using the "China argument", which disputed Hong Kong's rights under the convention. Last Friday the country's top court agreed with him and ordered his release.

Last night a spokesman for the Department of Justice said they would have to study the court's decision in detail, but legal sources in Madrid said an appeal by Hong Kong was not possible under Spanish law.

There is no bilateral arrangement between the HKSAR and Spain on surrender of fugitive offenders

"There is no bilateral arrangement between the HKSAR and Spain on surrender of fugitive offenders. As the offences for which Dias-Azedo is wanted is covered by the United Nations Convention Against Corruption, we have sought his surrender by invoking the Convention," the spokesman said. "This is the first time the HKSAR has made a surrender request pursuant to the UN Convention Against Corruption."

The spokesman added that it was premature to comment on the effect the decision would have - real or perceived - on the independence of Hong Kong's legal system.

It is understood Macau-born Azedo has had his Portuguese and Australian passports returned. His whereabouts are unknown and his lawyer, Rodrigo Martin, would say only his client was happy with the decision.

Azedo's release comes just three months after Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor signed an agreement in Madrid on mutual legal assistance. That agreement dealt with the transfer of prisoners already sentenced and the gathering of evidence, but not extradition.

Azedo - an ex-president of Club Lusitano and a former director of the Hong Kong Country Club - fled in 2009. He was arrested at a casino in the Spanish city of Salamanca in 2010. He is wanted by the commercial crime bureau for allegedly fleecing investors - including racehorse owner Archie da Silva and China Construction Bank (Asia) - out of more than HK$90 million.