With Robert Mugabe under house arrest, what happens with his dispute over HK$40 million Hong Kong villa?

Legal experts say new government in Harare could still pursue case over Tai Po house

PUBLISHED : Friday, 17 November, 2017, 8:03am
UPDATED : Friday, 17 November, 2017, 10:02am

While the crisis in Zimbabwe continues with President Robert Mugabe under house arrest, the ousted leader’s claim over a luxury villa in Hong Kong remains unresolved, three years after he launched a legal battle to take ownership.

The lawsuit to take back the property in Tai Po back from a Taiwanese-born South African businessman could still be pursued by a new Zimbabwean government without affecting the case, legal experts said on Thursday, although Mugabe himself would not benefit.

Local property agents were doubtful whether any potential new claimant would profit from the city’s property boom, estimating that the current market value of the two-storey house in question would be little changed from the HK$40 million (US$5.1 million) the Zimbabwean government claimed Hsieh Ping-sung paid to buy it on Mugabe’s behalf in June 2008.

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Any claimant would be “fortunate” to make a profit in the current market for such high-priced second-hand homes, they said.

The Government of the Republic of Zimbabwe, under Mugabe’s reign, lodged the lawsuit against Hsieh and his company, Cross Global, at the Hong Kong High Court in 2014 over the villa at the JC Castle estate.

Earlier media reports said Mugabe claimed the villa belonged to the Zimbabwean government, and his daughter had been “borrowing” it to live in while studying at City University.

Although land documents showed the villa had been held either by Hsieh or his company at various times, Mugabe’s government claimed in a court writ, filed in 2014, that the businessman was merely holding it on trust.

With Hsieh reportedly claiming it had belonged to him all along, the Zimbabwean government had asked the court to declare it was the “100 per cent beneficial” owner of the villa, according to court documents.

The last mediation session in May, 2015 appeared to have proven unsuccessful as the court has scheduled a pre-trial session in December, while a trial is expected to take place on March 6 next year.

Official records showed the flat is still under Hsieh’s name since he bought it in 2010 from his company, which made the purchase in 2008.

ONC Lawyers, the solicitor firm took the case to court on behalf of the Zimbabwean government, refused to comment on Thursday.

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University of Hong Kong law academic Eric Cheung Tat-ming said if a new government took over – and it wished to – it could still carry on with the legal action as a long as it was a change of leadership, rather than a transformation of the country itself and its policies.

Solicitor Daniel Wong Kwok-tung said the Hong Kong court would accept the case, provided that a new government was able to prove it had legitimate sovereignty, and Mugabe himself was out of the picture.

“Mugabe was acting in the name of the state … not under his own name,” Wong said.

Senior counsel Alan Leong Ka-kit pointed out the possibility of a legal complication if Mugabe and his family were required to testify. “It would make a world of a difference,” he said.

Mugabe and his family have had a broader connection to the city than just the house over the years, though mostly steeped in controversy.

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His wife Grace, 53, got into trouble for assaulting a British photojournalist when she went shopping in the city in 2009. She was able to escape prosecution citing diplomatic immunity.

Following the incident, a local student union called for the deportation of her daughter, Bona Mugabe, who was at the time enrolled in City University.

Mugabe himself was spotted shopping at high-end shops at the Harbour City mall in 2010, after a visit to Beijing to meet then vice-president Xi Jinping and president Hu Jintao, a trip that underpinned the close ties between his country and its biggest foreign investor.

Zimbabwe had a brush legally with a local landlord last year: its consulate in Hong Kong was being sued at the High Court for failing to pay HK$610,000 in rent.