Sat, Aug 26, 2006 - Page 4 News List

Ho attack a challenge to rule of law in Hong Kong

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , HONG KONG

The anonymous letter arrived on Thursday evening with a box-cutter blade.

It was addressed to one of the city's best-known lawmakers and litigators. And it held a chilling reminder of his beating at a Mc-Donald's restaurant on Sunday.

"You're lucky you didn't die this time," the letter said. "Next time you won't be so lucky -- watch your step."

The lawyer, Albert Ho (何俊仁), who had just been released from the hospital, attributed the attack to his legal work. It involves litigation in two industries bedeviled by organized crime: debt collection and gambling, where he is working on a lawsuit that is delaying a multibillion-dollar initial public offering by a Macau gambling company advised by Deutsche Bank.

The threat against Ho could heighten concern not only about Ho, but also about the potential damage to Hong Kong's reputation for the fair settlement of disputes in court -- something that has helped make it one of the world's great financial centers.

The assault on Ho was the most public one against a prominent lawyer since the territory was returned by Britain to Chinese control in 1997.

"I see it as an open challenge to the rule of law," said Ronny Tong (湯家驊), a lawmaker from the Civic Party.

On Sunday afternoon, three men carrying wood batons and wearing baseball caps pulled low to shadow their faces walked silently into a McDonald's in the heart of Hong Kong's central business district. They approached Ho and said nothing. Then, in front of as many as 150 potential witnesses, they struck him so many times and so hard that a baton broke. Leaving Ho bleeding, they fled from the restaurant and have not been caught, despite an extensive police search.

One of the biggest worries in the years leading up to the return of Hong Kong to China was that the rule of law would gradually be undermined. It is Hong Kong's reputation as a safe, stable place where contracts can be enforced and business disputes settled equitably that has turned it into the largest transportation hub in Asia and a Chinese financial center.

The lingering question since the handover has been whether the Chinese Communist Party or the Chinese gangs known as triads would start to exert more influence. The government has intervened here three times in the last nine years to impose its legal rulings on democracy and immigration issues, while there have been hints of triad links in the attack on Ho.

Indeed, Hong Kong has always had a seamy side that contrasts with its towering skyscrapers crowned with the names of global companies like Citigroup or HSBC. Periodic kidnappings of rich entrepreneurs and their children were a problem even under British rule.

"Compared to the rest of Asia, Hong Kong remains a world-class and law-abiding city," said Stephen Vickers, a top police intelligence official during British rule who is now the president and chief executive of International Risk, a security consulting firm. "Having said that, we have long-entrenched triad societies, many of which have tentacles to Macau."

The attack on Ho is the most serious such incident since 2003. Then, Mok Chiu Kuen, Ho's predecessor in litigation against a Macau gambling tycoon, Stanley Ho (何鴻燊), was beaten up in an incident that the police labeled a possible robbery attempt. No arrests were made, Mok subsequently abandoned the litigation, and the police did not tie the incident to Stanley Ho.

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