HONG KONG (Reuters) - A Hong Kong judge chided a former city leader now embroiled in a corruption case for being uncooperative and misleading the public, in rare, strongly worded comments that also put the city’s rich and powerful under the spotlight.
Donald Tsang, the city’s second leader after Hong Kong’s 1997 handover from British to Chinese rule, is currently on bail pending appeal after being sentenced to 20 months behind bars for misconduct.
Two jury panels in two trials failed to reach a consensus on a separate, more serious bribery charge.
An independent legal system sits at the core of the wide-ranging autonomy promised to Hong Kong in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” formula that guarantees it freedoms not enjoyed on the mainland.
In a judgment issued on Tuesday, High Court Judge Andrew Chan ordered Tsang to pay a third of the prosecution’s trial costs of HK$15 million ($1.91 million).
Chan also described Tsang’s attitude during investigations into his alleged offences as “far from co-operative”, even though Tsang had told the public he had given his full co-operation.
“That seems to be very far from the truth,” Chan wrote, noting that Tsang’s attitude had led to “totally unnecessary costs which the taxpayer had to pay”.
A spokeswoman for Tsang said he had no comment on the judgment, but that he was discussing whether to appeal against having to pay the legal costs.
Chan also rebuked the involvement of a public relations firm, which he said tried to bring prominent public figures into the courtroom, including the former justice minister and media personalities in an attempt to introduce good character evidence for Tsang to the jury “through the back door”.
While there was no direct evidence the firm was engaged by Tsang himself, the inference was “overwhelming”, Chan wrote.
“It came therefore with no surprise that in recent years, when the wealthy and powerful were charged for criminal offences, they tried all kinds of means and ways to list their cases in the High Court before a jury,” Chan wrote.
He added it was “undesirable” for public relations firms to get involved in criminal proceedings as it could be perceived they are seeking to influence the jury.
“It does nothing good to the rule of law in Hong Kong. This serves as a warning to all public relations firm or consultant.”
But some legal experts raised concerns over Chan’s judgment.
“He committed a very fundamental and grave error in not allowing Donald Tsang the chance to explain, before he came to a rather serious and negative conclusion,” said Eric Cheung, a law academic at the University of Hong Kong.
He also said it would be the prosecution, not the defence, which gets to choose the trial venue.
Former Justice Secretary Wong Yan-lung also said in a statement on Wednesday the judgment contained factual inaccuracies because nobody had arranged his court appearance. The decision had been his alone to show support for Tsang.
Tsang was sentenced in February 2017 after a jury found him guilty of a charge of misconduct in public office.
He had deliberately concealed private rental negotiations with a property tycoon while his cabinet approved a broadcasting licence for a now defunct radio company that the tycoon partly owned.
Reporting by Venus Wu; Editing by James Pomfret