Former top Hong Kong official and property tycoon appeal landmark graft conviction

HONG KONG (Reuters) - A former senior Hong Kong official and a billionaire property tycoon arrived in court on Tuesday to appeal against a corruption charge more than two years after they were jailed in one of the city’s most high profile corruption cases.

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Rafael Hui, who headed the Hong Kong government civil service from 2005 to 2007, was sentenced in December 2014 to seven-and-a-half years imprisonment for several charges including misconduct in public office.

The former co-chairman of Hong Kong-listed developer Sun Hung Kai Properties Ltd 0016.HK, Thomas Kwok, was jailed for five years. Two others, including former Sun Hung Kai executive Thomas Chan and businessman Francis Kwan, were also jailed.

Following an initial unsuccessful appeal against their convictions, they were finally granted leave last July to contest one specific charge; that of “conspiracy to commit misconduct in public office”.

“I feel my mind is at peace and I sleep well,” said Kwok as he arrived at court, dressed in a suit and pink striped tie with his bowl-cut hair dyed black, and thronged by reporters.

The landmark trial tarnished Hong Kong’s reputation for clean and efficient governance -- exposing the cozy relationship between powerful tycoons and officials in the former British colony, with Sun Hung Kai paying Hui millions of Hong Kong dollars in bribes, indirectly through Chan and Kwan, to gain government favor.

The current appeal argues the payments were made before Hui took public office and that “being or remaining favorably disposed to another person is not a sufficient act to constitute that element of the offence” according to court documents.

Kwok’s lawyer, Clare Montgomery, didn’t deny that certain payments had been made but said Hui hadn’t done anything specific to favor Sun Hung Kai. Chief Justice Geoffrey Ma, however, queried whether, as a matter of common sense, Hui should have accepted the payments given his “duty to office and to the public interest”.

If cleared of the charge, Kwok, who is currently on bail, would walk free, more than two years before his full five-year term ends, according to Montgomery, though Hui would still have to serve out time for other charges.

The hearing in a domed, British colonial-era building will conclude on Wednesday with a decision from the five judges of the Court of Final Appeal expected soon afterwards.

(Corrects paragraph 3 to clarify Francis Kwan was a businessman, not Sun Hung Kai executive)

Writing by James Pomfret; Editing by Michael Perry