Swingeing fines for poll bribery

ELECTION laws gazetted today will widen the range of offences and increase penalties for violations, ahead of crucial polls for District Boards and the Legislative Council.

The maximum penalty for most major electoral bribery offences will jump from a $10,000 fine and one year's imprisonment to a $500,000 fine and seven years' imprisonment.

The amendments will add to the Corrupt and Illegal Practices Ordinance, which now says only that it is illegal for people to pressure someone to vote or not to vote for a particular candidate.

''Bearing in mind the serious nature of electoral offences, the existing penalty levels are quite lenient,'' the Government said in a paper given to legislators yesterday.

''It is also anomalous that electoral bribery carries much lighter penalties under the Corrupt and Illegal Practices Ordinance than other corrupt offences under the Prevention of Bribery Ordinance,'' the paper said.

A government spokesman said the amendments came after a review, and would help to ensure open and fair elections for the District Board polls in September and Legco elections next year.

''It also removes from the ordinance certain anomalies and inconsistencies and achieves greater deterrence through heavier penalties,'' he said.

For example, the new bill makes a candidate who accepts a bribe to withdraw from an election guilty of a ''corrupt practice'' instead of just an ''illegal practice'' which carried a much lighter penalty.

The bill also intends to plug loopholes.

Some incumbents seeking re-election publicise their performances in reports distributed to their constituents, but the printing cost is not counted as an election expense.

''Although these reports are invariably published just prior to election and distributed to prospective electors, it is difficult to classify them as election material per se and therefore to subject them to the election expenses ceiling,'' it said.

''This gives the incumbents an unfair advantage.'' The amendment would stipulate that any performance reports published by an incumbent seeking re-election and distributed after the nomination of candidates should be regarded as election material.

Electoral bribery attracted public concern when former legislator Gilbert Leung Kam-ho was convicted of offering bribes to two Regional Councillors in return for helping him get elected to Legco.

The Government has provided extra money for the ICAC to open 34 posts needed for a new investigation group within its Operation Department.

A total of 224 election-related complaints were received in 1991, following the elections to the three-tier political system.