The corruption trial of two Hong Kong tycoons in Macau will go ahead with the same judge whose illness caused it to be adjourned, legal sources say.
Proceedings against Chinese Estates Holdings chairman Joseph Lau Luen-hung and Steven Lo Kit-sing, the multi-millionaire convenor of Hong Kong soccer giants South China, were postponed last week until January 7 next year.
Court officials said presiding judge Alice Costa was "sick'', but did not say what the illness was.
The news came after Lo's lawyer, Jorge Neto Valente, predicted the proceedings were likely to be adjourned due to the combined effects of a heavy court schedule and a lack of document disclosure by the prosecution.
Valente also said he understood Costa was ill.
The adjournment fuelled concerns about the future conduct of the trial, but a well-placed legal source has told the Sunday Morning Post that Costa will continue to handle the case. Under Macau law, which is based on the Portuguese legal system, once a judge takes on a case he or she can be removed from it only in extreme circumstances.
This provision is a legacy of Portuguese colonial rule in Macau, which ended in December 1999 when sovereignty was handed back to China.
"It [the provision] stems from the 1974 revolution which overthrew the dictatorship in Portugal. Legal provisions were put in place to make sure that arbitrary removal of judges - which was common under the dictatorship - could not happen again,'' the source said.
The source commented that the unscheduled postponement of the trial also came at an opportune time for Beijing.
"It's a pretty fair guess that at a time when China is undergoing an already complex and difficult leadership transition, they would rather do without the high- profile trial of two Hong Kong tycoons,'' the source added.
Lau and Lo are accused of offering a HK$20 million bribe to disgraced former Macau public works chief Ao Man-long to secure a land deal for a luxury property project near Macau airport. They both deny the charges.
Ao was jailed for 29 years in May for corruption offences. He was already serving 28 1/2 years from two previous graft cases.
Costa, the presiding judge in Macau's Court of First Instance, previously heard the corruption and money-laundering case involving four relatives of Ao and three other businessmen in 2008.
Fugitive Macau businessman Ho Meng-fai got the heaviest sentence of 25 years. Ao's wife, Chan Meng-ieng, received 23 years.
Ao's late younger brother Ao Man-fu, sister-in-law Ao Chan Wa-choi and father Ao Veng-kong received prison sentences of five years, four-and-a-half years and four years respectively.
In a rare move, Costa ordered the three businessmen to pay compensation of 100 million patacas to the government.
Lo's lawyer, Valente is no stranger to the law, both as a defender and a victim.
In 2001 he had to be rescued by a special operations group of the Macau security forces after a 100-hour kidnap ordeal during which he was shot in the leg.
He says he was told by his abductors they wanted a 20 million patacas ransom as a "tax" on rich Portuguese who were "stealing" from Macau.
Valente, who has lived in Macau since 1970, is reportedly its wealthiest Portuguese resident.
He is a former legislator known to have close personal links with top political figures in Lisbon, including former Portuguese president Jorge Sampaio.
History of the case
January 30, 2008: Ao Man-long, former secretary for transport and public works in Macau, jailed for 27 years for taking HK$800 million in bribes. His sentence was extended to 28 1/2 years in 2009 for further bribery offences.
April 16, 2012: Macau's Court of Final Appeal names Joseph Lau Luen-hung, chairman of Chinese Estates Holdings, and Steven Lo Kit-sing, chairman of BMA Investment, as being linked to the Ao corruption case.
May 9: Ao denies receiving HK$20 million in bribes from Lau and Lo in 2005.
May 24: Chinese Estates Holdings issues statement saying "Mr Lau strenuously denies the allegations levelled against him", adding he would continue as executive director of the company.
May 31: Lau and Lo charged with bribery and money laundering.
June 28: Lau ordered by Macau's Court of First Instance to appear for trial on 17 September.
August 14: Macau's chief executive Fernando Chui Sai-on invalidates sale of five plots of land near Macau airport.
August 15: Chinese Estates Holdings says it is determined to pursue compensation from the Macau government and the original owners of the five plots of land.
September 17: Case adjourned until January 7, 2013, due to Judge Alice Costa falling ill.