Families call on Beijing and Hong Kong governments to intervene after four men from city jailed for life in Philippines on drugs charge
- Group had been found guilty of possession of half a kilogram of methamphetamine near Manila
- Supporters, who say the men are innocent, not hopeful any appeal will be successful
The families and supporters of four Hongkongers jailed for life in the Philippines on Friday are urging the Beijing and city governments to intervene, protesting against what they claim is a trumped-up drugs possession charge.
The four men, aged 31 to 51, are seeking to appeal the sentences handed down by a regional trial court, which convicted them of possessing half a kilogram of methamphetamine.
They have long protested their innocence, claiming they were framed for a crime they did not commit, after they were arrested at sea aboard what was described as a “floating crystal meth laboratory” near the popular tourist resort of Subic in July 2016.
Lo Wing-fai, 44, Chan Kwok-tung, 31, Kwok Kam-wah, 49, and Leung Shu-fook, 51, had all denied charges of manufacturing illegal drugs and possession of meth, also known as “Ice”.
At the trial in Olongapo city, a four-hour drive from Manila, presiding judge Roline Ginez-Jabalde found them guilty on the possession charge while acquitting them of manufacturing illegal drugs.
Officers had found 467.8 grams of methamphetamine hydrochloride, or crystal meth, stashed in a brown paper bag in Leung’s backpack, the court document said.
Ginez-Jabalde said she believed the four had “conspired and confederated together to commit the crime of illegal possession” of the drug.
The families of the four flew to the Philippines for Friday’s verdict.
“It’s extremely unfair,” said Lo’s sister, Lo Shu-ho. “Perhaps the court wants to avoid trouble with the government so they handed out life sentences – this is just too horrifying.”
Leung’s daughter, Winkey Leung Wing-lam, broke down in tears outside the court.
“The four did nothing … but they still need to go to jail,” she said.
Democratic Party lawmaker James To Kun-sun, who has been helping the families of the four, described the convictions as “very unfair”.
“We still strongly believe they are innocent … we will appeal after seeking legal advice,” To said, urging the Beijing government and Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor to make the case a priority.
“The central government and the city’s chief executive should be concerned about whether the sentences were fair and consistent with the judgment,” To said.
On whether there was any chance of an appeal, he said: “When facing such a [judicial] system in this country, I can’t say that I’m optimistic, but we should explore all legal means and get ourselves best prepared for the case.”
The four were detained on board a 50-metre fishing boat about 3km off the coast of Zambales province, northwest of Manila, amid a high-profile operation led by Philippine police chief Ronald dela Rosa.
Authorities said that the men were part of a racket smuggling drugs to mainland China, and that equipment used for the production of crystal meth – known as shabu in the Philippines – had been seized in the police operation.
But the families complained it was a set-up. They said officers found nothing in an initial search but later claimed to have discovered 0.5kg of Ice in one man’s backpack, which had been removed from the men’s sight for a few minutes.
Ginez-Jabalde, in her ruling, said the court was “not amenable to [the] defence suggestion of ‘planting’ evidence mainly because the discovery was done publicly and not surreptitiously”.
Officers had arranged for media organisations to board the vessel that day, and To pointed out that journalists witnessed the bag being taken away before a sniffer dog indicated there were drugs in it.
A video of the search was presented in court with testimony from defence witness Joshua Antonio, a local TV reporter. To said the clip showed that drugs were not found in the backpack during the initial search.
However, the judge ruled that the video was a compilation of “selected portions” by the reporter and the cameraman, with “gaps between segments”.
She also noted that no other major media outlets at the time reported Antonio’s claim that no drugs were found on the first inspection.
To argued that it was “too much” for the judge to ask the defence to prove who had planted the evidence, as the witness could not state with certainty that the drugs had been placed in the bag by police.
But the judge found the testimonies of the prosecution’s principal witnesses to be “straightforward, detailed and credible”.
A lawyer representing the four told Hong Kong media in the Philippines that being in possession of such a quantity of drugs did warrant a life sentence, but that the judge’s justification for imposing it was “not acceptable”.
“I was very surprised; I expected the four people to be acquitted and released because the evidence is very strong, but instead, the result was unreasonable,” the lawyer said.
The four were also ordered to pay 5 million Philippine pesos (US$95,000) as a fine.
Winkey Leung and Lo Shu-ho returned to Hong Kong with other families at about 2am on Saturday.
Soon after their arrival, Winkey Leung said: “I know Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor will visit Beijing. I hope that she can help the families tell the central government about this unfair situation.”
Bursting in tears, Lo Shu-ho said: “We just don’t know what to do. Honourable chief executive, if you have a chance to meet President Xi Jinping, please do justice for us or they will die for sure.”
A spokesman for Hong Kong’s Security Bureau said that the government “has always attached importance” to cases of local residents being detained or imprisoned abroad and was concerned about their legitimate rights and interests.
It said the Immigration Department and the Chinese embassy in Manila would continue to assist the four men and their families.
The four could make a request to serve their sentences back in Hong Kong under an existing agreement between the two sides, the spokesman said.
But To said that would not be likely, as it would mean giving up their appeal.
The arrests gained widespread coverage in Philippine media in 2016 and came at a time of tension between Manila and Beijing over territorial claims in the South China Sea, as well as President Rodrigo Duterte’s ruthless war on drugs.