Thu, Jul 17, 2003 - Page 5 News List

HK's prosecutors mull case against finance chief Leung

AP , HONG KONG

Prosecutors weighed evidence yesterday on the finance chief's purchase of a luxury car right before he raised auto taxes, while analysts warned the scandal could escalate Hong Kong's political crisis.

Secretary for Justice Elsie Leung (梁愛詩) said the call on whether to prosecute Financial Secretary Antony Leung (梁錦松) is hers to make, after her department got a report on the case from Hong Kong's anti-graft agency and handed it over to prosecutors.

Critics said the matter was so politically charged the government should take direction from independent lawyers to avoid any perceptions of unfairness.

Leung was widely criticized after he bought a new Lexus in January and then raised auto taxes in March, saving himself HK$190,000 (US$24,359). He said it was an oversight and sought to make amends by donating money to charity.

Hong Kong's Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) investigated the matter and officials said Tuesday night the findings had been handed to the Justice Department.

"We've received the report," Elsie Leung told reporters yesterday. "The prosecution division is studying it. I can't tell you how much time we need to consider it as I haven't seen it. The consideration is according to our criminal prosecution policies."

The justice chief said any decision on whether to prosecute would be hers, but pledged that "the case of Secretary Leung is no different from other cases. We would treat it in the same manner."

However, Antony Leung's case is being decided when the government of Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa (董建華) is under enormous pressure to be more accountable to the public.

A half-million people marched on July 1 against an anti-subversion bill that they called a threat to freedoms, and Tung eventually had to backtrack on the matter.

One political scientist said yesterday the Antony Leung issue was too politically charged for Elsie Leung to make the call, and independent legal advisers should be brought in.

"If the government is going to decide on its own and if the final decision is to make no prosecution, it will trigger a huge anti-Tung crisis, so big that nothing could control the public anger," said Ivan Choy of the City University of Hong Kong.

Elsie Leung came under fire in 1999 when she opted against prosecuting a prominent former publisher, Sally Aw (胡仙), in a circulation fraud case in which Aw was named as a co-conspirator. Three lower-level executives went to prison and many viewed Aw's more lenient treatment as favoritism.

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