Ray of hope for jailed tour guide

HONGKONG tour guide Paul Au Wing-cheung has made his first court appearance in more than a year for a hearing that could signal the end of his drug-connected jail ordeal in the Philippines.

Au and Hongkong factory worker Wong Chuen-ming appeared before Pasay City Regional Trial Court Judge Lillia Lopez last week, along with several representatives of the Hongkong tourist trade.

The hearing was not made public earlier as members of the Hongkong Travel Industry Supportive Committee kept it low profile.

''I feel so happy,'' said committee chairman Mr Ronnie Yuen. ''The judge has finally allowed my circumstantial evidence to be shown.'' Mr Yuen said he had made eight trips to Manila on behalf of Au. ''I hope that the ninth time will be to bring him back to Hongkong. All of us believe he is innocent.'' Au, Wong and nine Malaysians were arrested on September 7, 1991, at Manila's Ninoy Aquino International Airport and charged with smuggling several kilograms of the drug ''ice'' into the country.

At the time, Au was a tour guide for Select Tours International.

Tried together and represented by one lawyer, the group was found guilty more than two months later and all were sentenced to life in jail and fined $67,760.

A courthouse fire in January last year and bureaucratic bottlenecks have delayed a requested review of the case by several months.

The hearing last month represented the first time Au and Wong had been allowed out of the decrepit Pasay City Jail in months.

An aide to Judge Lopez said the court wanted to re-hear Au's testimony, and hear witnesses who had not been previously presented. The court was also able to accept copies of documents destroyed in the blaze.

The aide said that, within the next few weeks, the judge could either refuse a review of the case and uphold the conviction or allow a new trial to go ahead.

Au could also be acquitted.

Mr Yuen said the judge told Au to remain patient, and said the decision over his fate was still in her hands.

Mr Yuen said a large amount of evidence was produced at the 11/2-day hearing. The main thrust was to prove there was no way Au could have been involved in an elaborate smuggling scheme, and that he had had no contact with the nine Malaysians before the tour.

''I wanted to prove Paul was a newcomer to the industry and that he had nothing to do with the Malaysian passport holders. He joined the travel industry less than five days before getting his first assignment.'' Mr Yuen stressed the group was not critical of Judge Lopez but of the system.

''They should not have let one lawyer represent 11 people,'' Mr Yuen said, referring to the weeks following Au's arrest when one lawyer was assigned to represent the group.

Au had little to say about the court appearance, but expressed relief at being allowed into the court.

''I'm fine,'' Au told the Sunday Morning Post. ''I have helped in the retaking of the evidence and now I have been told to wait.''