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Fugitive tycoon fights Hong Kong bid to ease China extraditions

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Hong Kong billionaire Joseph Lau has filed a court challenge against proposed extradition law changes that would make it easier to transfer fugitives between the city, Taiwan, Macau and mainland China.

[HONG KONG] Hong Kong billionaire Joseph Lau has filed a court challenge against proposed extradition law changes that would make it easier to transfer fugitives between the city, Taiwan, Macau and mainland China.

Lau, who was convicted of bribery and money-laundering in the neighbouring city of Macau in 2014, filed for judicial review of the move on Monday in Hong Kong's High Court. The proposal in question would allow for one-time transfers of suspects between Hong Kong and jurisdictions for which it lacks extradition agreements, such as the mainland, which has a separate legal system.

In his court filing, Lau argued that the law's passage would remove his legal protection from having to serve prison time resulting from a trial that "manifestly failed to meet internationally mandated standards of fairness". The former Chinese Estates Holdings Ltd chairman contended that the case gave him "direct legal interest in the subject matter of the bill".

Lau was sentenced in absentia in Macau to five years and three months in prison. Since there's no extradition pact between the cities and Lau hasn't returned to the gambling hub, he's so far served no jail time. He is Hong Kong's 10th richest man with a net worth of US$8.5 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.

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Lau's lawsuit makes him an unlikely protagonist in the fight against the extradition law changes, which have previously been opposed by human rights activists. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch published an open letter on Sunday, warning against the removal of safeguards from extradition to China, where people "are at risk of torture or other ill-treatment, and unfair trials", often over their political views.

Gerard McCoy, a lawyer for Lau, questioned Hong Kong's explanation that the change was needed to extradite a local resident suspected of murder in Taiwan and argued the proposal would have far-reaching consequences for the city's judicial system.

"Our client's position is this government is using the Taiwanese incident as a false pretext," Mr McCoy said. "The risks are that you can be dealing with erratic legal systems," where the courts are "political institutions".

Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam on Tuesday declined to comment on Lau's lawsuit and said she would press ahead with plans to release its bill on Wednesday. The government wants to pass the proposal before the current legislative session ends in July.

"The Hong Kong SAR government is facing legal challenges on a daily basis, but then it doesn't mean that we should put on hold important work which is for the public interest of Hong Kong," Ms Lam told reporters.

The extradition proposal has become the latest focal point for concern over China's encroaching influence over Hong Kong, which has been governed separately under a "one country, two systems" framework since its 1997 return from the UK. The move is particularly concerning to foreign businesses operating in the city because it could suddenly expose their local staff to the risk of prosecution on the mainland.

Last week, the Hong Kong government said it would remove nine categories, largely commercial crimes, including bankruptcy, securities and futures, and intellectual property from the proposal. Offences such as murder, corruption and robbery that would be eligible for at least a three-year jail sentence under Hong Kong law will remain.

The changes failed to convince many critics, with thousands of residents taking to Hong Kong streets on Sunday to demand the plan's withdrawal. The American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong welcomed the tweaks, but said it continued to have reservations about the proposal.

"Those concerns flow primarily from the fact that the new arrangements could be used for rendition from Hong Kong to a number of jurisdictions with criminal procedure systems very different from that of Hong Kong," AmCham said on Friday. "We strongly believe that the proposed arrangements will reduce the appeal of Hong Kong to international companies considering Hong Kong as a base for regional operations."

Lau remains high-profile figure in Hong Kong despite stepping down from his Chinese Estates post in 2014. He recently married a former journalist, and has been active in art and jewellery auctions, purchasing a 12.03-carat blue diamond for US$48 million at Sotheby's in 2015.

"Few would be enthusiastic about protecting billionaires facing credible accusations of bribery or other involvement in public corruption," said Ryan Mitchell, an assistant law professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

"It's likely that the mood of the business community will determine whether the government is willing to remove corruption-related charges and instead focus the proposed law only on violent crimes and the like."

BLOOMBERG