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Patrick Ho

Former Hong Kong home affairs chief Patrick Ho may be calling notorious US jail home for next 9 months

After again being denied bail, Ho may be spending time in New York’s Metropolitan Correctional Center – a place described as worse than Guantanamo Bay

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 06 February, 2018, 11:35pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 07 February, 2018, 12:04am

Hong Kong’s former home affairs secretary Patrick Ho Chi-ping may spend the next nine months in a place where notorious drug lords, international arms dealers, terrorists, mafiosi and billion-dollar fraudsters once called home.

A US district court judge’s decision to deny Ho bail for a second time early Tuesday means he will be spending more time at the Metropolitan Correctional Center, New York, a facility that one former inmate described as worse than Guantanamo Bay. Judge Katherine Forrest ruled that Ho, who is facing bribery and money laundering charges, presented a flight risk.

Forrest’s decision followed an objection by the prosecution team to the former home affairs secretary’s second bail application. Last month, the defence team asked that Ho be released on a US$10 million bond, 10 times the original application.

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The judge cited in her decision the possibility that Ho could find “safe harbour” in jurisdictions in which he had worked for a Hong Kong-based NGO, including the city, mainland China and Russia. Ho’s NGO was funded by a Chinese oil and gas conglomerate identified in the indictment against him as gaining business advantages in Africa as a result of payments he orchestrated.

Ho has been in US custody since November.

The Metropolitan Correctional Center, located in lower Manhattan near where the city’s iconic Brooklyn Bridge ends, has served as a temporary home to high-profile individuals as they awaited trial since it was built in 1975 – becoming the first high-rise facility used by the Bureau of Prisons.

Robert Precht, a criminal defence lawyer and founder of the New York-based legal think tank Justice Labs, described the federal prison as “oppressive”, “discouraging” and “dehumanising” during a speech at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Hong Kong last week.

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Its more infamous inmates, past and present, include Mexican drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, who was considered the “most powerful drug trafficker in world” by the US Treasury and is awaiting trial after his extradition last year; Viktor Bout, the Russian arms dealer arrested in Thailand in 2008 before being extradited to the US in 2010 and convicted of selling weapons to terrorist groups in 2011; former US mafia boss John Gotti, head of the major Gambino crime family who was convicted in 1992 and later died in prison; Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, who was found guilty in 1997 of masterminding the 1993 World Trade Center bombing; and Bernie Madoff, who organised what is believed to be world’s biggest Ponzi scheme.

Inmates considered the most dangerous are housed in 10 South, one of 10 separate units that make up the complex. Here, the lights are on 23 to 24 hours a day, prisoners are held in solitary confinement and are not allowed to call out to one another, according to media reports.

The unit reinforces the sense of isolation one gets behind bars: the window glass is frosted so inmates cannot see the world outside, and are forced to stare at the four walls of their cell.

“The segregated units are horrifying and inhumane,” David E. Patton, the executive director of Federal Defenders of New York, told The New York Times. “If you wanted to intentionally design a place to drive people mad, you’d be hard pressed to do better.”

One inmate, Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, a defendant accused in the 1998 bombings of two American embassies in East Africa, told a psychiatrist that he preferred the “relaxed” and “pleasant” conditions at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp compared with his time at 10 South.

However, it seems unlikely Ho, 68, will see the inside of 10 South, given the charges against him. He was formally indicted on eight bribery and money laundering charges related to pay-offs to government officials in Africa that gave a Chinese company access to oil rights in Chad.

Ho was part of “a scheme to pay and offer money and other things of value to foreign officials in Africa, including the president of Chad, the Ugandan foreign minister and the president of Uganda, to obtain business for” a Shanghai-based energy company, according to the indictment against him.

He has pleaded not guilty to the crimes, which some, including Ho’s wife Sibelle Hu, have said are politically motivated.

More likely, Ho’s life at the prison will resemble that of Madoff, who pleaded guilty in 2009 to 11 federal felonies and admitted to turning his wealth management business into a Ponzi scheme that prosecutors estimated bilked people out of almost US$65 billion.

According to a report that year in the New York Daily News, Madoff stayed in a 7½ by 8 foot cell. The cells all have bunk beds while only some have windows looking outside at the Manhattan skyline.

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The day starts at 6am with a wake-up call for the prison’s more than 750 inmates followed by breakfast at 6.30. Lunch is served at 11.30am, dinner is at 5pm and lights out is called at 11pm. The only televisions are in common areas where Ho will have to watch with other inmates – quite a change for a man who had considerable personal wealth, according to a pretrial service document that states Ho had reported assets of between US$7 million and US$8 million and an annual income in excess of US$400,000.

The prison also has a library and ping-pong table, and inmates are allowed some outdoor recreation every other day.

Madoff has since been transferred to the Butner Federal Correctional Institution in North Carolina state to serve out his 150-year sentence.

It was unclear how long Ho would be held at the Metropolitan Correctional Center as he could be transferred to another facility pending trial. At his first bail hearing in Judge Forrest said, “my guess is that it will be a year” because of the “voluminous” amount of evidence presented by the prosecution.

Ho, who had been working for an arm of CEFC China Energy after he left the Hong Kong government, has been in US custody since November.

The trial is expected to start on November 5.

With additional reporting by Robert Delaney in New York