No timetable for reforms on prosecuting power, Hong Kong justice chief says
Controversial jailing of three pro-democracy student activists last year reignited calls for change
Calls for greater independence for Hong Kong’s prosecutor from his or her politically appointed superior were brushed aside by the government on Wednesday, with it saying there was no “timetable” to push ahead with such reforms.
The stance was made clear by embattled Secretary for Justice Teresa Cheng Yeuk-wah, who herself might face possible prosecution over illegal structures at her residence.
The call for the justice minister – a politically appointed position – to relinquish his or her prosecuting power to the director of public prosecutions (DPP) was reignited last year following the controversial jailing of three pro-democracy student activists.
News reports suggested Rimsky Yuen Kwok-keung, Cheng’s predecessor, had overruled his top prosecutors to press for harsher sentences for the student leaders, including the Occupy movement’s poster boy Joshua Wong Chi-fung, despite the trio originally being spared jail.
In response to a Legislative Council question on Wednesday, Cheng said there was an existing mechanism to ensure free and independent control of prosecutions in Hong Kong.
“Currently no review has been conducted, nor is there any timetable on the issue of the secretary for justice vesting all decisions relating to criminal prosecutions in the DPP,” Cheng said.
“However, the Department of Justice is willing to listen to views that this council, the legal professional bodies and the public may have.”
She emphasised that the justice minister would delegate to the DPP the authority to handle a matter if there was any actual or potential conflict of interest on his or her part.
The previous justice minister, Cheng added, had delegated the exercise of certain functions to other legal officers within the department nine times last year.
Accountancy sector lawmaker Kenneth Leung, who moved the question, was disappointed by Cheng’s remarks, saying there should be a “standing order” for the secretary for justice to delegate prosecutorial decisions to the DPP if a case involved the minister.
Pro-democracy lawmaker Raymond Chan Chi-chuen, of People Power, went further, asking Cheng whether the justice minister should step down if he or she faced prosecution.
“If [the case] does not overlap with his or her work, the secretary for justice – not just me – should continue to play his or her role,” Cheng said.
But pro-Beijing lawmaker Priscilla Leung Mei-fun, who chairs Legco’s administration of justice and legal services panel, argued that any full delegation of power by the secretary for justice would contravene the Basic Law, and that the minister should only hand over power when there was a conflict of interest.
Leading criminal lawyer Cheng Huan said in an earlier interview with the Post that there was “no better time than now” for the city’s chief to hand over prosecuting power, pointing to the recent appointments of Cheng as justice minister and David Leung Cheuk-yin as prosecution chief.
The public might have the perception that Yuen interfered with the prosecution decision even when there was no evidence suggesting he did so, said the barrister, who believed the reforms would help prevent such criticism.
Additional reporting by Chris Lau