The fate of a British man diagnosed with schizophrenia after forcing a London-bound Virgin Atlantic flight to return to Hong Kong this month apparently rests with mainland authorities as the in-flight drama happened in its airspace, according to his family.
The decision on whether to drop charges against mainland English teacher Robert Hughes, 25, may be announced today. But his mother, Helen, 50, and older brother, Peter, 26, have been warned that the chances of him walking free are not clear-cut, because the incident falls outside Hong Kong's jurisdiction.
They want to take Hughes home to Liverpool to be treated for schizophrenia - which was diagnosed at Princess Margaret Hospital in Kwai Chung after the flight was forced to turn back on August 11 some 1,000km into the journey, with Hughes strapped to a seat.
"The [Hong Kong police] officer dealing with the case said if the incident had happened in Hong Kong's airspace, they could make a decision themselves," said Helen Hughes, who was also on the flight. "But as it was outside Hong Kong … it has to go to the Department of Justice to go through someone else.
"That's where the problem lies … and an added nightmare."
Hours before the London flight, the brothers had flown into Hong Kong from Sanya , Hainan , without incident.
No one had previously seen any schizophrenic tendencies in Hughes, though his brother felt he was "behaving oddly". As a result, Mrs Hughes had made the trip to Hong Kong to escort her younger son home.
She said her son had not tried to pull open the cabin door of the Airbus A340 jet, as earlier reported. She said Hughes "was standing by the door, and then leaned against it" momentarily, at which point cabin crew asked him to sit on the jump seat next to an attendant. His hands and legs were bound and the pilots decided to turn back to Chek Lap Kok.
Passengers with no idea of what had caused the plane's U-turn piled abuse on him, his mother said.
Hughes was arrested on landing and released on bail within 48 hours, but he had to surrender his passport and is now under a court order to stay at Kwai Chung psychiatric hospital.
After the doctors' diagnosis, Hughes was prescribed medication and calmed down immediately, according to his brother. "I wouldn't have let him step onto a plane if I knew there was a slight chance he was going to act like that," Peter Hughes said.
Since his diagnosis, "he's pretty much his usual self and is looking forward to getting home", Mrs Hughes said. But the British airline has slapped a ban on her son, and the Hughes are now appealing directly to airline boss Richard Branson to allow him back on board, although they are still searching for another carrier to fly him home.
Hong Kong police said they were seeking advice on the issue.
The Department of Justice said last night that it was not appropriate to comment on a specific case.
However, its spokeswoman noted: "The incidence of criminal liability under [the Aviation Security] Ordinance upon a passenger while on board an aircraft is not determined solely by the location of the aircraft at the time when the conduct takes place. Other factors and concepts are also important."