Launder facing extradition over Carrian affair

THE LAST piece in the complex Carrian jigsaw puzzle could be in place this month as the extradition hearing to bring disgraced investment banker Ewan Launder back to Hong Kong gets underway.

Anti-corruption officers are optimistic about bringing the 58-year-old back to the territory to face bribery charges relating to the collapse of the Carrian empire.

Launder will appear at London's Bow Street Magistrate's Court on Tuesday for a hearing which is expected to run for more than a week. The former chief executive of Wardley International is accused of accepting bribes worth $45 million in return for granting credit facilities to the Carrian Group and Eda Investment in the early 1980s.

Securing the extradition hearing itself was something of a relief to investigators of the Independent Commission Against Corruption, who were surprised when Launder was granted GBP500,000 (HK$5.75 million) bail at Bow Street last October. Launder also had to provide two sureties totalling GBP150,000.

And it could be one of the sureties who proved to be a crucial factor in the commission losing its plea for extradition. Law enforcers believe a surety of GBP50,000 from Lord Goodman, one of the most influential solicitors in British public and politicallife, clinched the bail.

Confidant, friend and legal adviser to several members of the royal family and former prime ministers Harold Wilson and Edward Heath, Lord Goodman is also a family friend of Launder. It is widely believed that Lord Goodman's surety is the one heavyweightpunch which may keep Launder on British soil.

Launder left Hong Kong in 1983; the commission issued a warrant for his arrest in 1989 and tracked his movements over three continents. He had been living in Spain and Germany and was finally arrested at Heathrow Airport in London on September 10 last year.

It is believed Launder has been working as an investment adviser since leaving Hong Kong. He owns an 11th century country mansion, worth $8 million, in the picturesque Oxfordshire village of Sutton Courtenay, and several houses in London.

The Carrian Group became Hong Kong's biggest bankruptcy when it collapsed in 1983, leaving debts in excess of US$1 billion (HK$7.73 billion). The Eda Group went bankrupt a year earlier.

With an estimated $50 million already spent on trial preparations, and at least $330 million on the Carrian trial that was thrown out, the Government's quest to bring the perpetrators to justice has turned out to be a costly experience for the taxpayer.

Carrian boss George Tan Soon Gin was arrested eight years ago for alleged fraud and corruption involving the Malaysian bank offshoot, Bumiputra Malaysia Finance Limited (BMFL). In 1988, after a 19-month High Court hearing, Tan was acquitted in the Carrian trial along with five other defendants charged with conspiracy to defraud creditors and shareholders of Carrian Investments Limited when the judge found no case to answer.

But last month Tan and BMFL director Rais Saniman appeared together in the High Court. A warrant for Saniman's arrest was issued in 1985 and he was detained in France two years later on charges relating to the collapse of the Carrian empire. French courts released him, saying his role in the Carrian affair was ''unclear''.

But he was arrested again in June 1990 after Britain offered new evidence. The Minister of Justice overturned the arrest without explanation, but this decision was quashed after the State Council said that a foreign state had the right to challenge a government ruling.

Saniman, 59, was then extradited to Hong Kong. He appeared in court with Tan, who is now 60, both facing two counts of conspiracy.

Tan is charged with conspiring to defraud BMFL of a total of US$560 million by causing or permitting BMFL to make unsecured loans to Carrian companies under Tan's control. Saniman is charged in relation to US$238 million.

Tan is further alleged to have falsified a schedule to a loan agreement with BMFL in June 1980 and to have offered $39 million to BMFL chairman Lorrain Osman and $3.2 million to BMFL director Hashim Shamsuddin as a reward. Saniman is being remanded in ICAC custody and Tan has been released on $52 million bail.

This follows an expensive seven-year extradition battle by Osman, which included a record-breaking 10 applications for a writ of habeas corpus. His defence costs in British courts, even back in 1991, were estimated at $500,000 a day. When he was finally extradited and appeared in a Hong Kong court, Osman pleaded guilty to a charge relating to a US$292 million fraud. He was released last August after only two months in jail.

Launder is expected to follow in the footsteps of his alleged co-conspirators and engage in a lengthy extradition defence, which will be another costly experience for the Hong Kong Government and taxpayer.

If an extradition order is made by Bow Street's magistrates court against Launder, he has 15 days in which to appeal - an option he would likely take.