A Hong Kong murder suspect whose case sparked the city’s extradition bill crisis made a public apology on Wednesday as he was released from prison amid an escalating political row with Taiwan.
After spending 19 months in custody on money-laundering charges, Chan Tong-kai, wanted for the murder of his pregnant girlfriend in Taiwan, walked out of Pik Uk Correctional Institution in Clear Water Bay on Wednesday morning.
Reverend Canon Peter Koon Ho-ming, a top Anglican priest who had been visiting Chan weekly in jail, told the Post it was unlikely the former inmate would leave Hong Kong on Wednesday.
Speaking outside the maximum-security prison, the 20-year-old student bowed before apologising to the victim’s family and to the people of Hong Kong.
“I am willing, for my impulsive act and things I did wrong, to surrender myself to Taiwan to face sentencing,” he said, adding he had made the “worst mistake” that could not be reversed.
He added: “I hope this can make her family feel slightly relieved, and [the deceased girlfriend Poon Hiu-wing] can rest in peace.”
Thanking his parents, he said: “Even though I’ve made the worst mistake, they still care for me, support me and won’t give up on me.”
Chan begged Hongkongers for forgiveness before bowing for the second time and leaving in a white seven-seater vehicle, without taking reporters’ questions.
The car Chan was travelling in with Koon was later seen entering King’s Park Hill in Yau Ma Tei. Metal barriers were in place to control traffic in and out of the estate.
Koon then left the estate in the same vehicle without the murder suspect. Chan has since been relocated to an unknown location.
His case snowballed into the biggest crisis in decades for the Hong Kong government when it tried to push through an unpopular extradition bill, arguing that it was needed to plug the legal loophole exposed by the Chan proceedings.
But the bill, which would have allowed the transfer of suspects to places where Hong Kong lacks an extradition agreement, also covered mainland China. Formulated with little consultation, the proposed legislation prompted millions to take to the streets in defiance, which started in June.
Chan's release has also caused a political row between Hong Kong and Taiwan over the past few days.
While the Taiwanese authorities wanted to send their law enforcement agents to Hong Kong to bring Chan back, the Hong Kong government slammed the suggestion as “a disrespect of Hong Kong's jurisdictional power".
Their war of words continued following his release on Wednesday.
Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen said the island would not agree to his surrender in exchange for leniency.
Addressing what she said were accusations about her government’s handling of the case, she said: “Everything we are doing now is to uphold justice ... enhance our national sovereignty.”
She added her government would “continue to request that the Hong Kong government provides judicial assistance, especially in the area of evidence gathering”.
“We hope the Hong Kong government will not avoid [our request] as many people want to see that the Hong Kong government shoulder responsibility [over the murder case],” Tsai said.
In a broadside against Hong Kong’s government, Taiwan's Mainland Affairs Council called it absurd to let a murder suspect walk free, saying it risked turning the city into a crime haven.
The council suggested in a statement that Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor’s administration deliberately gave up its jurisdiction over the murder case, and turned a blind eye to the suffering of the victim’s family, a claim Hong Kong’s security chief later refuted.
In a separate statement responding to Hong Kong’s accusation that Taiwan had placed a travel restriction on Chan, Deputy Minister of the Interior Chen Tsung-yen, of Taiwan, said the suspect was only barred from registering for a visa to enter Taiwan through the internet because it wanted to verify his identity, adding it would allow Chan to apply in person.
By suggesting it would send police officers and prosecutors to Hong Kong to bring Chan back, the council said it was merely seeking consent from Lam's government to help with the case, in what it called judicial cooperation and long-standing international practice.
But Hong Kong's security minister John Lee Ka-chiu lambasted Taiwan’s authorities for being obstructive, repeatedly changing their position and making up accusations, which he said was “no good for justice”.
“That’s why I urge the Taiwanese government to see how the accused person’s surrender would be best-facilitated, rather than laying all these hurdles and restrictions,” he said.
“Taiwan should bear all the responsibility [for justice not being served],” he added, speaking at the Legislative Council.
Before leaving the city's legislature to a chorus of pro-democracy lawmakers’ calls for him to resign, Lee confirmed that Chan was now under police protection because of the suspect’s fears over personal safety.
Chan fled to Hong Kong last year after a holiday with Poon, 20, in February last year. Her body was later found.
But Hong Kong does not have the jurisdiction to try Chan for an overseas murder. In the end, local prosecutors charged him only with money-laundering offences for illegally tapping into Poon’s finances after his return.
Chan pleaded guilty to the money-laundering charges at the High Court in April and was sentenced to 29 months in jail, serving six months before his release.
His prison term was reduced by a third for good behaviour, and 13 months of detention before his sentencing was considered as time served.
Koon, the Anglican priest who accompanied Chan on Wednesday morning, said he wanted to ensure the suspect would be fairly treated and not turned into a political pawn.
He said Chan had originally bought his tickets for travel to Taiwan, but cancelled them due to the uncertain situation.
A source close to the matter said while the aim was to eventually get the suspect back to Taipei, Taiwan's wavering stance made it difficult.
The source also said Taiwan’s comments on the crime being premeditated was a “threat” to due process.
“There is extreme prejudice [against Chan],” the source said.
The source added church officials would provide mental support to Chan in the meantime.
“He was inside and didn't really know what was happening [with regards to the Taiwan situation],” the source said.
Meanwhile, Chan’s release was not expected to attract much attention from protesters, according to one anti-government activist.
“Although he is caught in the political storm, I do not sympathise with him,” the protester said.
“So far the extra damage he suffered is guilt.”
The Post visited the flat of Chan's parents on Wednesday morning in Kai Ching Estate in Kowloon. No one answered the door.
A woman living on the same floor as Chan's parents said she had seen them recently when taking out the rubbish.
“I didn't know Chan Tong-kai would be out today,” the neighbour said, declining to be named.
Chan Tong-kai, 19, and his pregnant girlfriend Poon Hiu-wing, 20, travel to Taipei together, but Poon does not return to Hong Kong and her body is later found.
Chan is arrested for murder by Hong Kong police but only charged with money laundering for dealing with Poon’s properties, for which he is later jailed for 29 months.
He could not be sent to Taiwan despite requests from Taipei’s authorities, since there is no formal extradition agreement between the two places.
Security Bureau proposes a revision of the extradition regime, which would allow the transfer of fugitive to any place Hong Kong lacks an agreement with, including mainland China, Taiwan and Macau.
Chan’s case has been used by the government as the key justification to plug the loophole in the legal system.
After weeks of filibustering in the bills committee, security minister John Lee Ka-chiu announces the bill will be tabled to full council directly on June 12.
First massive rally is held by Civil Human Rights Front, which estimates 1 million people taking to the streets to protest against the bill. But the government indicates the scrutiny will resume on June 12.
Clashes erupt after protesters besiege the Legislative Council, forcing the government to adjourn the bill’s scrutiny.
June 15 and 16
Chief Executive Carrie Lam announces the bill will be suspended. But a day later, a second massive rally is held with an estimated 2 million people taking to the streets and demanding complete withdrawal of the bill.
More than 100 protesters storm the Legislative Council building, and make electoral reform for greater democracy another key demand.
Massive protests are held across different districts in the city, some descending into violence.
Lam officially announces the extradition bill withdrawn, but it fails to stop the unrest.
Lam invokes a colonial-era emergency law to ban use of face masks in public rallies, triggering further protests across the city.
Reverend Canon Peter Koon Ho-ming reveals Chan’s willingness to surrender to Taiwan after he is released on October 23.
Hours later, the city leader receives a letter from Chan expressing the same wish.
Taipei says Chan’s surrender is not enough and requests formal talks within a mutual legal assistance framework. But Hong Kong’s Security Bureau asks Taipei not to cause unreasonable delay and handle the case with “common sense”.
Taipei makes surprise reversal of its earlier decision not to accept Chan from Hong Kong.
Hong Kong government rejects Taiwan’s “totally unacceptable” offer to send officials to the city to take back the murder suspect. Chan is released from Pik Uk Correctional Institution. His prison term was reduced by a third for good behaviour, and 13 months of detention before his sentencing was considered as time served.
“This last is important. Even in corporate environments, it is very difficult to remove an underling for incompetence if that underling has seniority and a long history of good performance reviews. As in government bureaucracies, the easiest way to deal with such people is often to “kick them upstairs”: promote them to a higher post, where they become somebody else’s problem.”