Under-fire Hong Kong justice chief Teresa Cheng agrees to appear before lawmakers as outcry over dropped CY Leung case rumbles on
- Cheng will attend Legco panel meeting on January 28 to explain justice department’s prosecution policy
- Pan-democrats vow to press her on UGL case despite warning from panel chairwoman not to dwell on specifics
Hong Kong’s embattled justice minister, Teresa Cheng Yeuk-wah, has agreed to appear before lawmakers demanding a full explanation as to why she decided not to prosecute former chief executive Leung Chun-ying following a four-year investigation by graft-busters into his business dealings.
Cheng will attend a Legislative Council meeting on January 28 to explain the prosecution policy of the Department of Justice (DOJ), according to Priscilla Leung Mei-fun, chairwoman of the legislature’s administration of justice and legal services panel.
The department has not yet decided whether top prosecutor David Leung Cheuk-yin will also attend the panel meeting.
Lawmakers will have one hour to question Cheng.
“I received the DOJ’s reply this morning,” Priscilla Leung said on Friday. “Since it’s only a regular meeting, we’ve squeezed time from existing agenda items and arranged one hour to discuss prosecution policy.”
Based on past meeting rules, each lawmaker may be given one to two minutes to question Cheng.
They are set to grill Cheng on why her department last month deemed it unnecessary to seek an external legal opinion before dropping the case against Leung over a payment of HK$50 million (US$6.4 million) he received from Australian engineering firm UGL, part of which was paid after he became the city’s leader in 2012.
The DOJ found no conflict of interest, but stopped short of explaining the legal reasoning.
To further add to the controversy, Cheng later said her department would only consult an outside lawyer if the case involved a member of the DOJ. However, the department told lawmakers in a February paper that external counsel would be engaged “when addressing possible perception of bias or issues of conflict of interest”.
Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor defended the justice chief, saying Cheng had no ties to Leung and had made a professional judgment not to seek external help.
But former top prosecutors Grenville Cross and John Reading challenged Cheng’s assertion on external advice. They both said it was department convention to always seek outside opinion when a senior government official faced investigation.
Opposition lawmakers have already turned up the heat on Cheng.
Dennis Kwok Wing-hang, who represents the legal sector, tabled a motion to summon her to Legco to hand in internal papers explaining why independent legal advice was not sought. The motion was set to be discussed at the Legco meeting on January 23. He was also planning a no-confidence motion against Cheng if her explanations failed to satisfy them.
“The panel meeting will be inadequate for her to fully explain her decision behind the UGL case as it is confined to discussion of prosecution policy,” Kwok said, adding that his motion to summon Cheng was to press her for a full explanation of the decision and to address the public outcry.
Priscilla Leung anticipated the panel would raise questions on the DOJ’s policy on seeking external legal advice, but warned lawmakers not to dwell on the specifics of individual cases.
“In past years, lawmakers and the public have been highly concerned about different prosecutions, but we have always fairly and squarely focused on the prosecution policy without affecting a particular case,” she said.
Pan-democrats said they would press Cheng on the UGL case despite Leung’s warning.
“We will have our own time to ask the same questions,” Democratic Party lawmaker Lam Cheuk-ting said, adding that the 60 minutes in total would not be enough to get through all the questions.
“It will be pointless if lawmakers are just given one minute each to raise their questions.”
Fellow party member Andrew Wan Siu-kin said most pan-democrats would attend the meeting even if they were not members of the panel.
“I think pan-democrats will attend and try to raise questions as the public is highly concerned about the issue. We are shocked at how the rule of law is being undermined,” Wan said.
Lawmakers from the pro-establishment camp, however, said specific cases, including the UGL one, had no place at the panel meeting.
Industrial sector lawmaker Jimmy Ng Wing-ka believed the panel chairwoman would do her job well to guard against questions unrelated to general policy.
Ng, a lawyer by profession, argued that seeking external advice “was not a must but an exception”, which had been “overly” used by the DOJ in the past.