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Politics

Hong Kong fugitive tycoon seeks to block extradition

Joseph Lau faces possibility of five years in Macao prison after law changes

HONG KONG -- Joseph Lau, Hong Kong's fourth-richest tycoon according to Forbes Magazine, filed a judicial review on Monday against a government plan to revive a law that will allow him to be extradited to Macao, where he could serve five years in jail.

Several foreign corporate executives and local business chambers continue to voice concerns that the controversial legislation would allow suspects in Hong Kong to be extradited to mainland China, Taiwan and Macao. Despite these concerns, the government plans to push the proposal through the city's legislature on April 3.

Lau, longtime chairman of Hong Kong-listed Chinese Estates Holdings, has been hiding in Hong Kong after he was convicted of bribery in a Macao court in 2014. So far, he has evaded capture by Macao authorities as the two Chinese territories do not have extradition arrangements.

"On behalf of Mr. Lau, we have today issued an application in the High Count of Hong Kong for leave to apply for [a] judicial review," according to a statement issued by Lau's lawyers. It said a copy of the application had been delivered to the city's secretary for justice.

The property tycoon was sentenced to five years and three months in jail, along with his business partner Steve Lo Kit-sing, by a Macao court for offering 20 million Hong Kong dollars ($2.5 million) to a former government official in a land deal in 2005.

He subsequently made several appeals that were rejected. While Ao Man-long the convicted former Macao public works minister is serving 29 years in prison, Lo and Lau were able to escape to safety in Hong Kong.

The conviction did not stop Lau, 67, from living the high life. He splashed out on a luxury property in Hong Kong's prime hilltop residential area of Jardine's Lookout and bought diamonds worth more than $100 million for his young daughters a year after the court case.

In 2017, he transferred his entire 74.99% controlling stake in Chinese Estates Holdings to his newlywed wife and son, due to his poor health. The move effectively boosted the wealth of his 39-year-old spouse, a former entertainment reporter, to more than HK$50 billion overnight, making her the richest woman in Hong Kong, and one of the wealthiest in the world.

But Lau's freedom may now be at stake. Despite Lau's attempts to block the extradition proposal, the Hong Kong government appears to be determined to plug what it calls a "loophole" in the city's legal system.

While a similar motion was shelved some 20 years ago on concerns that suspects would not get a fair trial on the mainland, the government revived the proposal early this year after a Hong Kong citizen was accused of killing his girlfriend in Taipei. The case sparked public outcry because the suspect could not be sent to Taiwan for trial because of the lack of an extradition agreement.

"We won't shelve the proposal. It has been submitted to the legislative council for discussion. I hope the lawmakers could complete the deliberations as soon as possible," Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam told media on Monday.

However, the business community warned that amending the law will damage Hong Kong's reputation as a safe haven for international businesses and prompt overseas companies to leave. They are particularly worried about extraditions to China where suspects may not face an independent judiciary or a fair trial and they can be held arbitrarily and subject to poor prison conditions.

Under intense pressure from businesses including the American Chamber of Commerce and Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce -- the largest in the city -- the government last week agreed to exclude nine economic crimes from the proposal so that companies would not run afoul of the law due to differences in legal systems.

While most chambers of commerce welcomed the revision, AmCham is still not satisfied.

"As residents of Hong Kong and representatives of the international business community here, we continue to have serious concerns about the revised proposal," the chamber said in a statement, as issues over a lack of public and legislative scrutiny during rendition remain unaddressed.

"We therefore again request the government to consider alternative, more narrowly tailored means to address any truly urgent extradition-related issues facing the Hong Kong community," it said.

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