Beijing and Hong Kong renew pressure on Philippines over four men jailed for life on drug charges
- Hong Kong security minister John Lee says he has written to the Philippine consulate, while Chinese foreign ministry says officials are following up on the case
Beijing and Hong Kong have renewed their calls for the Philippines to ensure the rights are respected of four Hongkongers jailed for life in the country on drug charges.
The Hong Kong government said security minister John Lee Ka-chiu had written to the Philippine consulate on Tuesday to reiterate requests for proper treatment in prison and due legal process.
Lo Wing-fai, Chan Kwok-tung, Kwok Kam-wah and Leung Shu-fook were sentenced last Friday to life in jail for possession of 467.8 grams of methamphetamine.
The families of the four men say they are innocent and have vowed to fight for justice. On Monday they launched a crowdfunding campaign to raise HK$3 million (US$380,000) for legal expenses.
The families said they had expected the court to free the men before Christmas, after evidence was presented showing that police officers who arrested them found no drugs in their bags during an initial search, and only did so after briefly removing several bags from sight.
They have raised only about HK$50,000 so far.
The Chinese foreign ministry on Wednesday issued a statement saying it would continue to follow up on the case.
“The Chinese government attaches great importance to protecting the safety and legal rights of Chinese nationals abroad,” the ministry said.
“The Chinese embassy in the Philippines has been offering the necessary assistance to the people concerned.”
A spokesman for Hong Kong’s Security Bureau said: “The secretary for security has written to the Philippine consul general in Hong Kong reiterating the importance of safeguarding the legal rights of the four Hong Kong residents, and ensuring their proper treatment in prison.”
The consulate confirmed it had received Lee’s letter and said it had forwarded it to the relevant Philippine authorities through the Department of Foreign Affairs.
“The consulate continues to monitor the reactions from the local government as well as developments on the case,” it said.
“At the same time, similar to Hong Kong, the consulate would like to stress the importance of the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary. The decision on the case is not yet final as it may still be appealed by the defendants.”
Lee said he had also raised the matter directly with Beijing officials on Monday during a meeting with China’s Office of the Commissioner of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Hong Kong. Beijing had pledged to do everything in its power to protect the rights of the four, he said earlier this week.
Two years ago middlemen in Hong Kong offered the four men a job sailing a fishing boat from the Philippines to mainland China. They were told the vessel had been impounded for fishing violations, but was ready to be released.
The men flew from Hong Kong to the Philippines in July 2016, and boarded the boat in Subic Bay.
To their surprise, then Philippine police chief Ronald dela Rosa boarded shortly afterwards with journalists and a team of police officers who arrested the four.
Lo Shu-ho, sister of Lo Wing-fai, said she appreciated the steps the central and Hong Kong governments had taken but hoped authorities could do more.
Families of Hong Kong men jailed for life in Philippines on drugs charge vow to continue legal fight
“They cannot depend on the Philippine judicial system. They’ll be dead if they do,” she said. “We have presented so much evidence to the court but they were still convicted.”
She said she believed her brother was innocent and that he had “never touched drugs”.
Veteran China watcher Johnny Lau Yui-siu said Beijing had all the bargaining chips necessary to negotiate with the Philippine government, as the Southeast Asian country depended on China economically.
“President Rodrigo Duterte is so close to Chinese President Xi Jinping,” Lau said. “It would be much easier to negotiate over the four men now than when the Philippines was run by former president Benigno Aquino.”
But Lau added that if the Philippines were to release the men the country could face pressure to hand over another prisoner, Tang Lung-wai. Tang is serving a 40-year jail term on drug charges. He too has maintained his innocence.
Additional reporting by Karen Zhang