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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

A QUESTION OF JUSTICE

Should Hong Kong try "Big Spender"?

By Todd Crowell and Law Siu-lan / Hong Kong


NOT IN A LONG time had security been so tight in Guangzhou. Police commandos with bullet-proof vests were posted along the road to the Intermediate People's Court. Snipers perched atop surrounding buildings. And inside the court itself, heavily armed paramilitary policemen stood guard. All of this for one desperado, Cheung Tze-keung, 44, also known as "Big Spender," and 35 other defendants. Their alleged crimes include arms smuggling, armed robbery and, most spectacularly, the kidnapping of the scions of two of Hong Kong's wealthiest families.

So while much of the region focused on the trial of ousted Malaysian deputy premier Anwar Ibrahim on corruption and sexual-misconduct charges, Hong Kong was transfixed by its own "trial of the century" just over the China border. Besides the riveting nature of the purported crimes, attention has centered on Hong Kong's legal autonomy, vouchsafed by its Basic Law.

Under the mainland's secretive legal procedures, little hard information emerged from the Guangzhou courtroom. Most of what was relayed to reporters came through Cheung's Hong Kong defense attorney, Ivan Tang Yiu-wing, who is trying to have the defendants extradited to Hong Kong and tried there. According to Big Spender's courtroom story, Victor Li Tzar-kuoi, son of billionaire Li Ka-shing, was dragged from his car, gagged, stripped to his underwear, held overnight, then ransomed by his father for $134 million.

Then there was Walter Kwok Ping-sheung, 48, chairman of Hong Kong property giant Sun Hung Kai. He supposedly was held blindfolded in his underwear in a small wooden box for six days, while his family bargained the ransom down from $180 million to $77 million. Neither the Li nor Kwok clan has commented on the purported abductions, said to have taken place in May 1996 and September 1997 respectively. Nor have the families filed any official complaints. Without that, or the expectation of courtroom cooperation, Hong Kong authorities say they have no reason to request extradition.

Even so, Big Spender and his accomplices are unlikely to escape punishment. The exact charges in China have not been disclosed. But they probably involve arms smuggling, and may be enough to ensure quick executions upon conviction. The Guangzhou court is expected to pass verdict as early as mid-November. In Hong Kong, however, any trial would be in open court. And the worst punishment would be life imprisonment.

Those who worry about an erosion of Hong Kong's legal jurisdiction say that most of Cheung's alleged crimes took place in the territory. Therefore, they argue, he should be tried there. Democratic Party leader Martin Lee and many lawyers criticized the local government for not seeking to reclaim jurisdiction.

As many of Hong Kong's wealthiest families have ties to the Chinese leadership, some observers speculate that such connections played the key role in Big Spender's arrest. Chinese President Jiang Zemin is said to have taken a personal interest in the case. When he visited the territory in July, Jiang publicly condemned "evil elements [who] have recently perpetrated outrageous acts in Hong Kong and Macau, causing severe damage to the interests of the people." Even Hong Kong Chief Secretary Anson Chan indirectly chided the alleged kidnap victims for not reporting the crimes. "I sincerely hope that tycoons and the average man in the street will all see it as their business to cooperate," she said.

Some lawyers called Hong Kong's apparent inaction "chilling." Says Priscilla Leung, a Chinese law expert: "This would have been an ideal case to illustrate that [the local] common-law system remains in place." According to former Bar Association chair Gladys Li, developments so far suggested that China could prosecute people for breaking the law even if their offenses had been committed in the territory.

Director of public prosecutions Grenville Cross defended the Hong Kong government's position in a letter to Cheung's lawyer. "While the mainland authorities will not interfere with Hong Kong's judicial system, [Hong Kong] equally respects the mainland's system," he wrote. Cheung and the other defendants, Cross added, were suspected of committing crimes in China, so the Chinese had proper jurisdiction in those cases. The debate is sure to continue, whatever sentence Big Spender receives.


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