HONG KONG - The heady interplay of money, power and property interests in Hong Kong will be dissected over the next 70 days as its highest-profile corruption trial to date - with possible implications for the government's reputation and global business confidence in the financial hub - gets under way.
Two of the city's richest men - property tycoons and brothers Thomas and Raymond Kwok - yesterday pleaded not guilty to bribing Hong Kong's former No. 2 leader, Rafael Hui, with HK$34 million (S$5.48 million) in cash and loans, and the free use of two flats between 2000 and 2009.
In return, Hui, Hong Kong's chief secretary from 2005 to 2007, is accused of being or remaining "favourably disposed" towards their firm Sun Hung Kai Properties (SHKP), the city's second-largest property empire.
This makes him the most senior government official to be arrested by the Independent Commission Against Corruption.
The trio, together with two others - Thomas Chan, a board member in charge of land purchases at SHKP, and Francis Kwan, a former Hong Kong Stock Exchange official - were nabbed more than two years ago. All denied the charges against them.
The case is drawing widespread attention in Hong Kong, given the high-profile personalities and potential juicy details of their interactions, as resentment over a widening income gap and perceived cosy ties between the government and powerful tycoons simmers among Hong Kongers.
Chief Justice Andrew Cheung, in an earlier judgment setting out the reasons for allowing the use of foreign counsel, stressed the "public interest" involved in the trial, saying it has implications for the reputation and integrity of the Hong Kong government.
Its relationships with Hong Kong's major property players will be placed under the spotlight, he said, as will policies on land use and development.
"With no exaggeration, public confidence and indeed international business confidence are at stake," he wrote.
Scribes and voyeurs descended on the High Court in Admiralty for the first day of the trial, and by 7.30am, more than two hours before it started, the 40 seats in the media and public gallery had been snapped up.
Hui arrived at 9am, and when asked how he felt, pointed to the journalists crowding around him, saying wryly: "I'm feeling very relaxed." Inside the courtroom, the atmosphere was anything but.
High-powered lawyers have been roped in. Ms Clare Montgomery, who led Sweden's prosecution to extradite WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, is representing Thomas Kwok, while Mr John Kelsey-Fry, who helped Liverpool football club captain Steven Gerrard get acquitted of a wounding charge, leads the team for Raymond Kwok.
In the glass-walled dock, Hui, 66, sat apart from the brothers, nodding periodically as the eight charges are read out against him.
Thomas Kwok, 62, rasped out "not guilty" in Cantonese to the charge of conspiracy to offer an advantage to Hui and two counts of conspiracy to commit misconduct in public office, while his younger brother Raymond, 61, faces four charges.
Both wore giant white headsets for translations of the proceedings. Judge Andrew Macrae warned the media to be mindful of reporting laws so as not to prejudice would-be jury members.
Hong Kong University law professor Simon Young calls the trial Hong Kong's largest corruption case "involving big fish - very well-to-do individuals with access to good counsel, so I think we will hear some very interesting legal arguments".
The trial itself, he notes, is "not a free-range enquiry into collusion" between the government and the business community.
"But it obviously will raise serious questions for debate."
This article was published on May 9 in The Straits Times.
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