Chief Hong Kong prosecutor wants easier way to seize dirty cash

Chief prosecutor calls for reform of law so that assets can be confiscated without a criminal conviction - as is the case in other countries

PUBLISHED : Monday, 22 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 22 April, 2013, 8:34am

The chief prosecutor says he wants the law changed to make it easier for authorities to confiscate dirty money, as the city wages an uphill battle against money laundering.

Director of Public Prosecutions Kevin Zervos said the fact that prosecutors need a criminal conviction before they can apply for a confiscation order is hampering their efforts.

"Under the current law, we cannot confiscate unless we secure a conviction, which can be a stumbling block in cases where the criminality has occurred overseas or the evidence is unavailable to establish the predicate offence," Zervos said.

In other jurisdictions, including Australia and Britain, this is not the case.

There, the government has the flexibility of proving to the court on the balance of probabilities - a lesser standard of proof - that the cash is the proceeds of a serious crime in order to confiscate it.

The civil proceedings are separate from criminal charges of money laundering or the underlying crimes involved.

In criminal trials, the prosecution must prove the guilt of the accused beyond reasonable doubt.

Zervos wants to have the option of the civil channel to confiscate dirty money so that it can be returned to the public purse.

He said this would also help in combating money laundering and would leave prosecutors less open to criticism because "no one's liberty is at stake".

Lawmaker Ronny Tong Ka-wah agreed that civil-based confiscation would also be a deterrent, particularly in borderline cases in which it could be difficult to get a criminal conviction.

Last year, some HK$772 million of assets were frozen here - compared with a much heftier HK$1.2 billion in 2011, according to official figures.

And the amount of dirty money recovered and paid to the government last year was just HK$23 million - a steep drop from HK$1.6 billion in 2011.

"No one needs to launder clean money. If it was legitimate money, we would have claimants knocking on our door," Zervos said, ahead of a global conference on money laundering and financial crimes he will attend today and tomorrow in Bangkok.

He also hit back at criticism his department only chases the small players.

He said their job was made more difficult as criminal networks grew more sophisticated and international, and used new technology to move cash around. "To some extent, you need to rely on the minor players … to assist the authorities to identify the major miscreants," he said.

"Criminal syndicates tend to camouflage their criminal activities and dress them up behind a veil of legitimacy and respectability. They do it through corporate structures and sometimes on reliance of professionals as well.

"The money invariably comes not just from one jurisdiction but through many other jurisdictions before coming into Hong Kong.

"I cannot prosecute people in other countries for crimes they commit there. The big fish that we can catch are the ones swimming in our ocean."