A Spanish court freed a fugitive accountant wanted by Hong Kong over an alleged multimillion-dollar fraud despite an eleventh-hour intervention by Beijing, the Sunday Morning Post has learned.
The Department of Justice confirmed that Hong Kong filed a "direct statement" by the central government to the Constitutional Court of Spain in a bid to secure the return of Gabriel Ricardo Dias-Azedo.
It is alleged he fled the city in 2009 after fleecing investors out of more than HK$90 million.
But Spain's top court refused to take the Beijing statement - which is understood to have given a clear assurance of Hong Kong's legal independence - into account before it freed Azedo, 65, whose whereabouts are now unknown.
After an extradition battle lasting more than two years, the court ruled Hong Kong had no power to ask for Azedo's 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 his return under the United Nations Convention Against Corruption, a multilateral agreement adopted by 140 signatories, including mainland China and Spain.
Spain's government had earlier approved the request from Hong Kong as a part of China.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Justice said: "There was only one request made by the HKSAR upon the authorisation of the Central People's Government of the People's Republic of China ("CPG") pursuant to the United Nations Convention Against Corruption.
"For the hearing before the Constitutional Court, HKSAR filed additional evidence of CPG authorisation by means of a direct statement issued by CPG. However, the Constitutional Court refused to take this evidence into account."
It is understood Macau-born Azedo had his Portuguese and Australian passports returned.
His lawyer Rodrigo Martin would say only that his client was happy with the decision.
Azedo's release came 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.
One of the investors he is alleged to have duped is racehorse owner Archie da Silva.