Macau lawyers alarmed over court neutrality doubts in trial of ex-official Ho Chio-meng
Lawyers defending the government’s former top prosecutor step down from graft case, saying they cannot do their work properly
Lawyers in Macau have expressed concern over allegations of partiality in the city’s legal system after the defence team for former top prosecutor Ho Chio-meng decided to exit the case halfway through a trial session this week, saying the conditions were not there to properly do their work.
Leong Weng Pun and the rest of Ho’s defence team stepped down on Wednesday in a move considered very unusual.
“We all should be seriously concerned and look at this situation very carefully,” Macau-based lawyer Nuno Simoes said. Simoes, who was not involved with the case, said he was “very surprised” at the way events had unfolded.
Leong had been interrupted several times by the judge when questioning a witness in the trial. In Wednesday’s session, he hinted that the court seemed to be siding with the prosecution, Macau Daily Times reported.
Leong then requested a discussion with Ho about whether his team should continue representing him. On that same afternoon it was announced that since the defence lawyer had withdrawn from the case, the session would be adjourned.
“I am not abandoning the case. I think that word has a certain connotation. I am renouncing the case … because I feel there are no conditions to continue the defence,” Leong said on Friday.
But he said he would not comment on the court’s attitude as he had been one of those involved in the case.
“Everyone who attended the court saw what happened. I don’t think I have much more to say about it,” he said.
Ho, a former public prosecutor general who was once tipped to be a Macau chief executive, is facing more than 1,500 criminal charges including initiating or founding a criminal syndicate and fraud. He is accused of wrongfully awarding some 2,000 public works contracts worth more than 167 million patacas to local business people.
Ho’s case is the second high-profile trial involving a top official, after former secretary for transport and public works Ao Man-long was jailed for 29 years on bribing and money laundering offences, among others.
Leong said he and his colleagues had worked non-stop on the case since February last year, when Ho was arrested.
“We are all very tired. We put all our efforts into it,” he said.
In his almost 14 years working as a lawyer, it was the first time he had stepped down from a defence team due to not being able to exercise his role, Leong said.
Simoes, who represented Ao in his trial in 2007, said such cases were very complex.
“It’s normal to feel a number of difficulties, but it’s rather unusual to see the court in itself as a problem,” he said.
Simoes said there were not many legal cases with a political dimension in Macau.
“Having doubts about the impartiality of the court is something worrying. In such cases, the court should not only be impartial, but it should also show it in a more obvious way,” Simoes said.
Pedro Leal, a criminal lawyer defending two contractors in proceedings related to Ho’s case, said “the fact that a former prosecutor is being judged is already symptomatic of something wrong in the justice system”.
Both Simoes and Leal said the law that barred top officials from appealing against court decisions must be revised. Senior officials in Macau must have their cases heard by the Court of Final Appeal, which means they cannot make further appeals after a case concludes.
The court said in a statement on March 8 that Ho had five days to choose another lawyer, otherwise the court would do so.
Leal said there would be difficulties finding a lawyer in such short time and a new lawyer would have a hard time handling the case. The accusations are detailed in thousands of documents.
“If I were him [the new lawyer], I would request at least 60 days to prepare the defence,” Leal said.