Osman's court saga finishes

THE curtain fell on Hong Kong's most notorious banking scandal yesterday when the Legal Department formally withdrew 15 remaining criminal charges against Malaysian banker Lorrain Osman.

Deputy Crown Prosecutor Clive Grossman QC, leading Wong Chi-kwong, told Judge Andree-Wiltens in the District Court that all further criminal proceedings were being dropped, effectively ending the case against Osman.

Osman's lawyer, Colin Cohen, expressed happiness ''that the end is finally here''. This brought a smile to Osman's face, as he sat in the dock looking more relaxed than at his first appearance last December after his extradition from Britain.

He is due to be released in nine days' time.

Osman was first arrested in December 1985 at his home in St John's Wood, London, on 42 charges of fraud, corruption and false accounting relating to the BMFL-Carrian scandal.

From then, he fought an unprecedented seven-year battle to avoid returning to Hong Kong to face trial on those charges, making nine unsuccessful habeas corpus applications.

The longest legal battle in Hong Kong history, the case has cost the territory's taxpayers more than $100 million.

The charges dropped yesterday were one of theft, six of accepting advantages and eight of conspiracy to defraud.

Osman had been accused of accepting advantages totalling $67.77 million and the theft of Bumiputra Malaysia Finance (BMFL) property worth $2.5 million.

The charges of conspiracy to defraud BMFL, Bank Bumiputra Malaysia (BBMB), Permodalan Nasional and the Malaysian Government related to offences alleged to have been committed between December 1979 and October 1983.

It was alleged that BMFL made inadequately secured advances, totalling about US$450 million to various companies.

The millions of dollars spent to bring Osman to justice were not reflected at yesterday's two-minute hearing, which effectively ended the saga that began in 1985.

Osman, 62, will be released from Stanley Prison on August 16 after serving two-thirds of the one-year jail term imposed following his plea of guilty to one charge of conspiracy to defraud.

He will be put on a plane for London immediately after his release to join his wife and daughter who live there.

In June, Osman pleaded guilty to conspiring with former Carrian boss George Tan to defraud BMFL through the authorisation of loans of US$292 million between 1979 and 1983.

The loans were made to Plessey Investments, a Hong Kong shelf company owned by Tan. Plessey had no substantial assets and was formed one month before the loans were approved.

Osman admitted the loans were inadequately documented, inadequately secured and were made to an insubstantial company without adequate assessment of the credit-worthiness of Plessey or its ability to repay them.

He further admitted causing and permitting BMFL's returns to be submitted to parent bank BBMB in such a manner as to conceal the nature of the loans.

The loans amounted to the biggest made by BMFL, of which Osman was chairman. BMFL was Carrian's biggest creditor at that time.

Although the crime carried a maximum seven years' jail, the judge had, at the time of sentencing, indicated that he was giving Osman a two-year remission for his guilty plea and a further four years for the time he spent in custody in Britain.

During sentencing, Mr Justice Mortimer found Osman to be an indispensable part of the fraud, although he conceded other figures were involved.

A fortnight ago, Osman's former BMFL colleague, Hashim Shamsuddin, was released from Stanley Prison after serving seven years of a 10-year jail term. He has returned to his wife and five children in London.

Mr Hashim had admitted defrauding BMFL of US$137 million and accepting $15 million in bribes from Tan.

Tan, 59, is still on record bail of $50 million and is expected to appear in court next month. He faces fraud and corruption charges.