The scandal surrounding Italian ex-premier Silvio Berlusconi remained distant news to Hong Kong until a few weeks ago, when our government was dragged into it. A Berlusconi associate offered to help former chief executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, a Catholic, secure a private audience with Pope Benedict XVI in 2008. In return, the government was asked to interfere with investigations into fraud and money laundering involving Berlusconi. The connections were exposed in a series of reports in this newspaper. Despite denials from the Hong Kong parties concerned, questions remain.
The allegations by Sergio De Gregorio, a former senator embroiled in an unrelated bribery charge in Italy, are serious. He wanted the Hong Kong government to stop the transfer to Italy of evidence seized in 2007. The demand was relayed to the city's representative in Brussels, Duncan Pescod, who approached him for help over a private meeting he was trying to arrange for Tsang with the pontiff. Pescod confirmed he had sought help on the audience, which he said was raised ahead of Tsang's possible visit to Rome; but he stressed he had made clear to De Gregorio that the government would not interfere with the investigations. Tsang also denied having written through Pescod to the pope for a meeting.
In a detailed statement, Secretary for Justice Rimsky Yuen Kwok-keung said the audience was not mentioned when Pescod alerted the department to De Gregorio's inquiry on the probe. The audience, Yuen said, was never taken into account when handling the investigations; and the entire process had never been compromised. According to the chronological account by the department, the eight-year span in fulfilling the Italian court's request for search and seizure of evidence was mainly due to a series of lengthy appeals lodged by the Hong Kong parties involved. Yuen's assurance that the government acted strictly according to the law should be welcome. It is to be hoped that the clarifications will remove any cloud over Hong Kong's rule of law.
Many questions remain unanswered, however. Did Tsang instruct the Brussels Office to arrange the audience, or did Pescod seek help on his own? Given China and the Vatican have no diplomatic ties, is it appropriate for a Beijing appointee to meet the pope in a so-called private capacity? Is it right to use public resources on the chief executive's private affair? All these are valid questions.