Former Hong Kong leader Donald Tsang avoids conviction on bribery charge – for now – as jury unable to reach verdict
Ex-top official was charged with accepting an advantage as chief executive
The judge at former Hong Kong leader Donald Tsang Yam-kuen’s second bribery trial dismissed the jury after they were unable to reach a verdict on Friday, leaving his fate in limbo for the second time.
After 14 hours of deliberation, the eight jurors were adamant that they would not be able to deliver a minimum 6-2 majority verdict on whether Tsang was guilty of accepting an advantage, as the city’s chief executive, between 2010 and 2012.
This is the second time Tsang’s trial has ended in a hung jury over the same charge stemming from free renovation work he allegedly accepted from a local radio station’s owner.
He was sentenced to 20 months in prison earlier this year after being found guilty of misconduct in public office, but a split decision on the bribery charge prompted the government to seek a second trial.
There is a possibility he could face a third trial, lawyers said, though it is unclear whether the Department of Justice will press for it.
Walking out of the High Court, Tsang, 73, opened up for the first time about his emotional state since the trial began.
“I just want to say our family, after the ordeal of the past five years, has become mentally and physically exhausted,” Tsang said as he thanked supporters.
It took the former leader two full minutes to escape the media pack outside the court and board his vehicle.
Mr Justice Andrew Chan Hing-wai dismissed the four men and four women, who had been discussing the case since Thursday afternoon.
“I know it is a tough duty, but you have attended to that duty conscientiously,” he told the jury. “With those words of thank you, you are free to go.”
Tsang was the city’s second leader after Britain handed back Hong Kong to China in 1997. He led the government from 2005 to 2012.
Tsang found himself in the dock after being accused of accepting a free, custom refurbishment, worth HK$3.8 million (US$487,000), for a three-storey penthouse in the neighbouring city of Shenzhen where he planned to retire.
In return, prosecutors said, he became “favourably disposed” to a local radio station, Wave Media, the majority shareholder of which was Bill Wong Cho-bau, who owned the penthouse in Shenzhen’s East Pacific Garden and paid the renovation bill.
The court heard the 6,700 sq ft penthouse, in the trendy neighbourhood of Futian, was fitted with a calligraphy room, gym, winery and landscape garden, designed by internationally renowned designer Barrie Ho Chow-lai primarily at the request of Tsang’s wife, Selina Tsang Pou Siu-mei, and her feng shui master.
Due to his failure to declare his interest in the property, Tsang was previously found guilty of one count of misconduct in public office and was sentenced to 20 months in jail in a trial in late February. He has been granted bail since April, pending an appeal.
The jury in the previous trial failed to reach a verdict on the bribery charge,and the prosecutors decided to press the case again, resulting in the present trial, which lasted 25 days.
The day began with the judge responding to questions posed by the jury on whether a guilty verdict would need to have something to do with Tsang’s granting licences to Wave Media.
When the judge told the jurors that they could reach a guilty verdict even if Tsang’s acceptance of the refurbishment was not related to the licensing issue, the former leader remained frozen in the dock for minutes, showing no intention of leaving the courtroom even after the judge had left.
Tsang finally walked out, red-eyed and rubbing his nose on his way to join his family in a conference room on the same floor.
On a later occasion, affected by coughing, he whispered in his wife’s ear: “No justice.”
The jury wrote to the judge, saying they were unable to reach a verdict, for the first time at 11.05am, but they were told to continue.
At 5.15pm, they told the judge in a note: “After repeated discussion, we have not reached any majority verdict. All parties stand firmly on their viewpoint.”
“We decide to split,” they wrote, prompting the judge to discharge them.
Earlier during the trial, prosecutor David Perry QC told the court that the case was a “straightforward story” about corruption that went to the very top of the government with “as big a conflict of interest [as] you could wish to have”.
He said Tsang was “hopelessly compromised” after he was “sweetened” to become Wave Media’s ally in the government for his personal gain.
Tsang’s counsel, Selwyn Yu SC, however, countered that the prosecutors had pasted together coincidences to make up a story like something out of a classic Chinese martial arts novel. He said the renovation was part of a legitimate lease that had cost Tsang 800,000 yuan (HK$942,000) per year.
University of Hong Kong associate law dean Simon Young Ngai-man said the Department of Justice could still press for a third trial, though Tsang’s defence lawyer might argue it was “an abuse of process”.
“In my view, a second hung jury should lead to the conclusion that enough is enough,” criminal lawyer Jonathan Midgley said.
The Department of Justice said it had not decided on whether to apply for a retrial at this stage.
Both the prosecutors and Tsang’s lawyers will be back in court on Monday to discuss follow-up matters.