Hollow victory for trafficker

THE only drug trafficker in Hong Kong ever to be jailed for life had his sentenced reduced to 35 years by the Court of Appeal yesterday.

But Ng Muk-kam, 40, who was caught with heroin worth $148 million, may serve longer behind bars than if the life term had remained in place.

Prisoners sentenced to life imprisonment can be considered for release after five years.

Their cases are then eligible for consideration by the Long Term Sentence Review Board.

Although the same procedure is followed for those serving fixed terms, they usually remain in jail for at least two-thirds of their sentence.

Mr Justice Power said in order for a life sentence to be imposed the case must fall into the 'most serious' range, but that did not apply to Ng because he had not been the mastermind or financierbehind the smuggling syndicate.

'We are satisfied the sentence of life imprisonment was not a proper one,' he said.

The court substituted the 35-year sentence after Mr Justice Power said: 'He was clearly involved in a major way in the handling of this very large quantity of drugs. The seizure was enormous.' Commenting on the street value of the drugs, the judge said: 'It represents many lifetimes of honest earnings and yet more lifetimes of misery and despair for addicts and their families.' Ng was captured as he took delivery of 306 kilograms of pure heroin from a sampan at Aberdeen in June 1992. It was, at the time, the fifth largest seizure of the drug in the world.

He was sentenced to the life term by Mr Justice Stuart-Moore in November 1993. At the time, the judge said the law allowed a maximum of life imprisonment for the offence and that was appropriate in this case.

Mr Justice Power said the judge should have made sure the barrister defending Ng at his trial understood he was intending to impose the maximum sentence.

He rejected Ng's appeal against conviction, saying Mr Justice Stuart-Moore had properly directed the jury on the need to be sure of a defendant's guilt before convicting him.

It had been claimed that the judge's direction to the jury was 'unsafe and inadequate'.

The court also dismissed a claim by Ng that $150,000 cash seized from the glove compartment of his car should be returned to him.

John Griffiths QC argued during the appeal hearing that the life sentence imposed on Ng was unfair. He said deterrent sentences, including the death penalty in Singapore and Malaysia, had failed to stop the drug trade.

Daryll Saw, for the Crown, said drug offences involving huge quantities were in a category of their own. The life sentence was a proper penalty, he said.

Mr Justice Power was sitting with Mr Justice Mortimer and Mr Justice Mayo.