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Murder suspect whose alleged crime sparked months-long Hong Kong protests walks free

Chan Tong-kai (L), 20, wanted in Taiwan for the murder of his pregnant girlfriend during a holiday the two Hong Kongers took there in 2018, is greeted by Reverend Peter Koon Ho-ming (R) as he walks out the Pik Uk Prison in Hong Kong on October 23, 2019, after serving a short jail sentence for stealing his girlfriend's possessions. (Courtesy: Philip Fong/AFP/ Getty Images)

HONG KONG — Protests in Hong Kong have affected everything from esports and the NBA to arguments about free speech on Australian university campuses and the US-China trade war. Chinese President Xi Jinping, Donald Trump and basketball star Lebron James have all been pulled in.

But as the global consequences of almost four months of unprecedented unrest continue to be felt, the story that started it all has slipped from the headlines. On Wednesday, one of the central players in that story walked free from a Hong Kong prison on minor charges, after authorities say he confessed to killing his girlfriend but, so far, avoided prosecution for it.

Chan Tong-kai was sentenced to prison by a judge in April 2019. Just over one year earlier, authorities say the then 19-year-old admitted to killing his girlfriend, 20-year-old Poon Hiu-wing, while the pair were in Taiwan. Poon would have been about 15 weeks pregnant at the time.

Though Chan was arrested in March 2018 and soon confessed to the killing, according to police, that wasn’t why he was before a judge in April. Because Hong Kong and Taiwan have no extradition agreement, and do not usually provide cross-border legal assistance — and because they couldn’t prove the alleged murder was planned in Hong Kong beforehand — prosecutors in the city were unable to charge Chan with murder. Instead, he was charged with the more minor offense of money laundering, in relation to cash and other valuables he stole from Poon after allegedly killing her.

An attempt by Hong Kong’s leader Carrie Lam to plug the extradition “loophole” with Taiwan, and at the same time allow suspects to be sent to China and Macao, led to months of intense anti-government protests, which were initially sparked by fears the extradition law could be used to rendition critics of Beijing across the border to face trial.

Those protests show no signs of stopping, and have only grown more chaotic and violent in recent weeks. But on October 23, Chan — whose lawyers did not respond to a request for comment — walked free, after 19 months behind bars on the money laundering charges.

What happens to him now is unclear. The Hong Kong government said Chan has offered to hand himself in to Taiwanese authorities, but how that will exactly take place is hotly contested. Taipei said it had requested Chan be handed into its custody in Hong Kong, along with his alleged confession and other documents relating to the case, but Hong Kong has pointed out Taiwanese police have no authority to operate in the city.

“The authority of Taiwan has no law enforcement power in Hong Kong. Chan is Taiwan’s wanted person and his surrender decision is voluntary,” Hong Kong’s government said in a statement Wednesday. “As he will be a free man after released from jail, the (Hong Kong) Government has no authority to impose any restrictive measures on him. He could go to Taiwan accompanied by persons of his choice. Upon arrival, the authority of Taiwan can arrest him.”

Chan is currently a free man. Speaking outside Pik Uk Prison on Wednesday morning, he said that “I understand that because of my irreversible wrongdoing, I have caused huge pain.”

“I am willing to pay the price for my impulsiveness and my wrongdoing, which is to turn myself in to the Taiwanese authority and serve my sentence there,” Chan said. “I can only say I am sorry. I hope everyone will forgive me, give me a chance to give back to the society.”

Death at the Purple Garden Hotel

“She was a good daughter. In school, she was a good student,” Poon Hiu-wing’s mother told reporters in February. “What did she do to deserve this? Our family never imagined that such a horrible thing could happen to such a nice girl.”

According to court documents, Poon and Chan met in July 2017.

On social media, Poon shared happy selfies of the two of them together. In one photo, she smiles at the camera, her eyes wide and her face framed by long, dark hair. She’s holding Chan’s arm as he stares into the camera, his bowl cut hair hiding his eyebrows. He has big ears which stick out from his hair, and a large birthmark under his left nostril.

In February 2018, the couple took a holiday to Taiwan. Before they left for Taipei, Poon wrote on Facebook that Chan had described her as “his first and last girlfriend.”

Surveillance footage from the Purple Garden Hotel, verified by Taiwanese authorities, shows the couple returning soon after midnight on February 17. Chan is walking in front, carrying a large, apparently empty, pink suitcase with one hand. Poon follows a short distance behind him.

According to Chan’s confession, as presented in court, that suitcase would be central to what happened next. In a WhatsApp message to her mother, authorities say Poon said they’d be returning to Hong Kong later on the 17th. But while they were packing in the early hours of the morning, they started arguing.

The spat soon turned into a blazing argument. According to Chan’s confession, cited in court, Poon told him she was pregnant by her ex-boyfriend, not him. He says she then showed him a video of her having sex with another man.

That’s when the situation escalated, the court heard — Chan hit Poon’s head against the wall of their hotel room and began strangling her from behind with both hands. They fell onto the floor, where they struggled for about 10 minutes until Poon was dead.

Confronted with the corpse of his pregnant girlfriend, Hong Kong officials say Chan turned again to the suitcase. He stuffed Poon’s dead body into the pink case, folding her near in half to make her fit. He then threw her belongings into four plastic bags, according to court documents, and went to sleep.

At 11:25 a.m. on February 17, surveillance footage shows Chan leaving the hotel alone. He’s lugging a now apparently very heavy pink suitcase behind him, and it moves awkwardly over the cobbles on the street outside. He has a baseball cap pulled lower over his head, and a black mask over his face.

He disposed of Poon’s belongings in various trash bins near the hotel, according to court documents, and then dragged the suitcase to a nearby subway entrance. From Zhongshan station, Chan rode the red line north for 15 stops to Zhuwei station on the outskirts of Taipei, according to Taiwanese state media. There he started looking for a place to dump the body, eventually settling on a park, where he clumsily hid her in some bushes, Taiwanese police say.

Before he disposed of her belongings, authorities say Chan took Poon’s iPhone, her digital camera and an HSBC ATM card. Prosecutors say he immediately withdrew the equivalent of about US$700, with plans to go on a shopping spree, but changed his mind and caught his flight back to Hong Kong. There he further withdrew the equivalent of about $2,400 from Poon’s account, and deposited it to his credit card, according to authorities.

While authorities say Chan was enjoying Poon’s money, her parents were growing increasingly frantic. Poon hadn’t told them she was traveling with a boyfriend, but her mother found a copy of Chan’s Taiwan Entry and Exit Permit at Poon’s apartment, the court heard in April. On March 5, she filed a missing person report to police in Taiwan, and just over a week later they discovered Poon’s now decomposing corpse in the Zhuwei park.

Chan was brought in for questioning by Hong Kong police, and he admitted to murdering Poon and hiding her body, prosecutors say.

Extradition woes

Chan had admitted to the crime, and he’d been caught spending Poon’s money, according to authorities. But police could not prove that he had planned the alleged murder in Hong Kong, meaning authorities in the city had no jurisdiction over it.

Taiwanese prosecutors issued a warrant but without an extradition treaty, there was little chance of Chan being sent to Taiwan.

Hong Kong officials have described the lack of an extradition agreement with mainland China as a loophole, but a British official who worked on the agreement to hand over the city to Chinese control in 1997 said the building of a firewall with China’s legal system was deliberate.

“The UK made a conscious decision to create a clear divide between the two systems so that the rule of law remains robust,” former British foreign secretary Malcolm Rifkind wrote in June.

“The question of having a comprehensive arrangement for rendition, sending fugitives to mainland China, has been under discussion for more than 20 years, and of course got nowhere,” former Hong Kong lawmaker Emily Lau told CNN. “And the reason, the main reason, is that Hong Kong and mainland China have two very different legal systems, and we cannot guarantee, and nobody can guarantee, that anyone sent to mainland China, would get a fair trial, because what they have there.”

According to Washinton-based watchdog Freedom House, China lacks an independent judiciary and fails to protect the right to due process. The conviction rate in China has been widely estimated to be around 98%.

Demonstrations began over the extradition bill in April, and hundreds of thousands of people turned out to protest it on June 9. When the Hong Kong government pressed ahead, tens of thousands of protesters successfully blocked the city’s legislature from holding a second reading, and in June, Lam agreed to suspend it, but not fully withdraw it.

By the time she did announce its withdrawal, in September, it was too late: the protest demands had sprawled and the unrest — by then in its fourth month — showed no sign of stopping.

As far as the Hong Kong legal system is concerned, now that he’s left prison, Chan is a free man.

Last week — after lobbying by lawmakers and religious figures — Chan told the Hong Kong government he would hand himself over to Taiwanese authorities, willing to face justice on the island. This apparent solution was thrown into doubt, however, when Taipei raised concerns about accepting his surrender without full judicial cooperation from Hong Kong, including handing over evidence against Chan.

“The homicide case took place in Taiwan. The body of the deceased, key witnesses, exhibits and relevant evidence were all in Taiwan. Without doubt, Taiwan has jurisdiction over this offence,” Hong Kong’s government said Wednesday. “Now that Chan is willing to surrender, Taiwan should receive him, and initiate interrogation, evidence gathering and prosecution on him. Regarding the relevant evidence in Hong Kong, apart from those voluntarily brought with Chan, for other evidence, Hong Kong will, under the legal framework and following the procedures, provide all necessary assistance.”

Poon’s parents have called again and again for justice to be done, but there’s not really anything more they can do. Lam has said over and over that the extradition bill is dead. Whether there is another way to send Chan to face justice for his alleged crime remains to be seen.

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