The decision by Australia's justice minister not to allow the extradition of two men wanted in Hong Kong for alleged involvement in a piling scam is baffling - and worrying.
This is the first time since the handover that a request for fugitives to be returned for trial here has been turned down by the Australian government after being cleared by the courts. The move threatens to undermine the normally smooth relations between the forces of law and order in both places. And the decision is difficult to understand. The wanted men, Carl Voigt and David Hendy, are former senior executives of a piling contractor responsible for a housing project in Tung Chung in the late 1990s. They are accused of involvement in a substandard piling scam of the kind which plagued our city at that time. The charges they face are serious ones, including conspiracy to defraud and corruption. If convicted in Hong Kong they would face long prison terms. Until the decision made by Justice Minister Chris Ellison, the transnational operation to bring them to justice had worked effectively. They were arrested by Australian police in 2002 on behalf of the Independent Commission Against Corruption. Extradition hearings took place in the courts there, legal procedures were complied with and the way cleared for both men to be returned to Hong Kong. But the process came to a shuddering halt when the justice minister refused to authorise their extradition.
Law enforcement officials in Hong Kong are, understandably, surprised, disappointed and concerned. No reasons have been given for the decision - and it has been suggested none will be forthcoming. Mr Ellison can rightly claim to have acted within his legal rights. The minister has the final say on whether suspects are to be returned and the law does not require him to make his reasons known. But the minister's responsibilities go beyond his legal remit. The people of Hong Kong are owed an explanation as to why, in this particular case, suspects wanted for serious crimes are to be allowed to escape trial.
The implications become more disturbing when we consider the problems which our city has had to overcome in order to ensure the return of suspects from abroad. Many extradition treaties applicable to Hong Kong under British rule lapsed with our return to China in 1997. But new ones were signed and extraditions to and from countries around the world, including the United States, Britain, Canada, and Australia, have continued as before. There has been the occasional hiccup when suspects have succeeded in having their extradition blocked in court by raising concerns about the impact of the handover on our justice system. But each time the ruling was overturned by a higher court. Overall, the difficulties which might have arisen have been overcome. The Hong Kong authorities have continued to play an important role in helping combat international crime, returning suspects who have sought sanctuary in our city to the countries where they face trial. We are entitled to expect the system to work both ways.
An extradition agreement between Hong Kong and Australia is in place. If the piling scam case did not meet its requirements, then we would have expected the Australian courts to say so - but they did not. Similarly, the courts had no problem with the weight of evidence presented, or the ability of our legal system to give the suspects a fair trial. Mr Ellison's decision, therefore, is mysterious - especially as the Australian government has recently pledged to crack down on corruption in its own construction industry.
It is often said that justice must not only be done, but be seen to be done. This requires the Australian government to make known their reasons for allowing these two men to escape trial. We trust they will be good ones.