Diplomatic immunity granted 11 times in Hong Kong

Charges against consular officials relating to a traffic offence, assault and shop theft are among those dropped in city since handover

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 January, 2013, 5:11am

Fewer than a dozen diplomats have been granted immunity from criminal prosecution since China regained sovereignty over Hong Kong from Britain in 1997, according to figures released by the Hong Kong government.

Under rules enshrined in the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, three foreign nationals escaped criminal charges by invoking diplomatic immunity, while a further eight were granted consular immunity under a similar 1963 convention.

The diplomatic immunity cases involved a traffic offence in 2002, an assault in 2009 and a shop theft in 2010, details of which have not been disclosed by the Hong Kong government's protocol division or the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing.

Separately, there were eight cases of consular immunity where staff working in consulates avoided prosecution for alleged crimes such as assaults and traffic offences.

It is understood that the 2009 assault case is that involving Grace Mugabe, wife of Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe, allegedly punching Richard Jones, a British photographer and Hong Kong resident, as he tried to take photos of her shopping in Tsim Sha Tsui.

Two months after the incident, the Department of Justice said it would not prosecute Mrs Mugabe because she was entitled to diplomatic immunity.

The 2010 theft case is understood to have involved former French consul general Marc Fonbaustier, who was accused of stealing two bottles of expensive red wine from the Hong Kong Country Club.

Fonbaustier was swiftly seconded back to Paris, where he now works in the crisis management department of the Ministry of European and Foreign Affairs.

The 1961 Vienna Convention is designed to promote and develop "friendly relations among nations" and states that "such privileges and immunities is not to benefit individuals but to ensure the efficient performance of the functions of diplomatic missions as representing states".

Consular immunity is stipulated in a similar Vienna Convention agreed in 1963.

Immunity from prosecution can only be invoked if the offence the diplomat is suspected of is not considered "grave", meaning that it carries a term of five or more years on conviction.

A spokeswoman for the government's protocol division said diplomatic immunity did not apply in Hong Kong because there were no embassies in the city. She could not explain why there had been three such cases since 1997.

She also declined to provide details of the eight consular immunity cases, saying because police dropped their investigations there was "no knowing whether the cases were substantiated and would result in any actual charges".

The protocol division would also not say on how many occasions diplomatic or consular staff have sought to evade Hong Kong law.

The spokeswoman said the division, which helps the Ministry of Foreign Affairs determine if someone can escape prosecution, simply did not have any such records.

One recent case in which a consular official unsuccessfully sought immunity involved a former administrative assistant at the Egyptian consulate.

Salah Abdallah Mahrous Aly, who has since been transferred to a different job, was arrested at Chep Lap Kok airport when he tried to smuggle firearms and tear gas onto a flight.

It took weeks to determine that he was not eligible for consular immunity. He was then charged, pleaded guilty and was fined HK$15,000.