Net closing on Rebar fugitive Wang

CAT AND MOUSE: The chairman of the troubled Rebar Group tried to flee to Myanmar, but cooperation between Taiwanese, Singaporean and US officials left him stranded

 /  STAFF REPORTERS IN TAIPEI AND WASHINGTON

Sat, Feb 03, 2007 - Page 1

Authorities were hot on the trail of one of the nation's most-wanted fugitives last night as the investigation into a month-old financial scandal turned into a cat-and-mouse game of international intrigue.

The renewed hunt for fugitive Rebar Asia Pacific Group (力霸亞太企業集團) chairman Wang You-theng (王又曾) and his wife, Wang Chin She-ying (王金世英), began yesterday morning.

Taiwanese officials in Washington said that the US Department of Justice had notified Taiwan's representative to Washington, David Lee (李大維), on Wednesday afternoon that the couple had bought tickets on Singapore Airlines for Myanmar via Singapore.

Late Wednesday night, the US Justice Department called Lee at about the time the plane left Los Angeles, and Lee relayed that information in a cable to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

"We know that he is on a flight back to Asia, that's all we know," Lee told reporters at the time.

As the couple's Republic of China passports had been canceled, Wang Chin Shyh-ying was using her US passport, while Wang You-theng used a passport issued by the Dominican Republic.

The couple left Los Angeles at 11:25pm on Wednesday, on Singapore Airlines flight 27, from Los Angeles to Singapore.

Taiwanese officials sprang into action, contacting their counterparts in the Dominican Republic -- one of Taiwan's diplomatic allies -- and requesting that the country revoke Wang You-theng's passport.

Authorities in the Dominican Republic complied while the plane was in mid-flight, before it landed in Singapore for a brief layover.

The government also contacted Singaporean authorities, while dispatching a team of agents from the Ministry of Justice's Investigation Bureau (MJIB) on Thursday evening to intercept the couple.

Wang You-theng and his wife arrived in Singapore at 6:17am yesterday.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) said that the government's timely intervention, with the cooperation of Singaporean authorities, had thwarted Wang You-theng and his wife's plan to escape to Myanmar.

The fugitive couple were met at the gate by armed security guards, who attempted to persuade them to board a Taiwan-bound plane.

Wang You-theng reportedly began sobbing and squatted down on the floor, refusing to move.

According to a MOFA statement, the ministry provided Singaporean authorities with information about Wang You-theng ahead of the couple's arrival.

Since the couple had not committed any crimes in Singapore, and no extradition agreement exists between Taiwan and Singapore, authorities there were unable to detain them.

The MJIB agents at the airport attempted to persuade the couple to board Taiwan-bound Singapore Airlines flight 872, which was delayed for three hours after its original 8:05am departure time.

There were 190 passengers onboard flight 872.

"Singapore Airlines apologized for the delay by giving passengers pineapple cakes, but I think most of us passengers will still ask for more compensation in the near future," an unnamed passenger on the flight told the cable news station TVBS.

After screaming, crying and yelling in front of a boarding gate as agents tried to persuade the couple to return home to face trial, the fugitives eventually opted to return to the US via Singapore Airlines flight 38 direct to Los Angeles.

The plane left Singapore at 4:30pm yesterday, and is scheduled to arrive in Los Angeles at 3:30pm Pacific Standard Time.

"Agents from the MJIB were in Singapore [Changi] Airport to monitor [the couple], and have boarded the airplane that Wang [You-theng] and his wife took back to Los Angeles," Taipei District Prosecutors' Office Spokesman Lin Jinn-tsun (林錦村) told a press conference in Taipei yesterday.

The foreign ministry lauded Singaporean authorities for their cooperation.

"We respect how the Singapore government handled this matter," a ministry statement said.

"What I can tell you is that we [were] in contact with Singapore and [were] working closely with them," said Yeh Fei-bi (葉非比), vice director of the ministry's Department of Information and Cultural Affairs.

When Wang You-theng lands in Los Angeles, law enforcement authorities there have two likely options, a US consular official said yesterday.

First, because Wang You-theng and his wife's flight to Singapore originated in the US, officials in Los Angeles could permit Wang through immigration with the sanction of Taiwanese authorities, a US consular officer told the Taipei Times, requesting anonymity because he was not a designated spokesperson.

Taiwanese officials could then request that the US continue to monitor the couple, until Taipei provides law enforcement authorities with a sufficient legal basis to deport the couple to Taiwan, the US source said.

The other alternative would be for the US to declare Wang You-theng persona non grata and deny him entry through immigration at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX).

The US would then instruct Wang You-theng that he must depart from US territory by a certain deadline, such as within 24 hours, the consular officer said.

Wang You-theng would then have to arrange for sanctuary in another country willing to grant him the authority to land without official documentation, the official said.

Lin, the prosecutors' spokesman, said that the Taiwan-US Mutual Legal Assistance Agreement did not cover the extradition of suspects or convicted criminals, so US officials would be expected not to arrest the couple in US territory for Taiwan.

Lin said that although Wang You-theng might not be able to enter the US, his wife could enter the country on her US passport.

Taiwanese officials had been hoping the US would detain the Wangs and deport them to Taiwan on the basis of evidence Taipei provided US authorities about the couple's alleged criminal activities.

However, despite a trove of information supplied by Taipei to Washington, there was no legal basis for US law enforcement authorities to take action against the fugitives.

This was clearly a disappointment to Taiwan's Washington-based representatives.

"Taipei did not provide us with enough information to justify the US taking legal action against the Wangs," one senior Taiwanese official complained.

Nevertheless, the events indicate that the US, in accordance with law enforcement cooperation treaties with Taiwan, had taken steps to monitor the Wangs' movements and otherwise investigate the case in response to requests from the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office (TECRO) in Washington.

The information indicates the US Department of Justice had contacted all airlines operating through US airports to keep the Wangs on a watch list and notify the department of any travel movements.

"The US government knows very well that this is a very big case for us, so they took action accordingly," a senior Taiwanese official in Washington said.

"The information flow was quick and efficient. The mechanism worked," he said.

"That's important," the diplomat added.

"We always appreciate cooperation from the other side," he said.

But some officials said that they are limited in what they can say about US cooperation.

"We have to be careful to let the channels of information flow," one official said. "It might happen again."

Wang You-theng fled to Hong Kong on Dec. 30, with his wife following on Jan. 1.

The couple flew to San Francisco after staying for several days in Shanghai.

Wang You-theng is alleged to have embezzled as much as US$2 billion from his ailing business empire before going on the lam.