Top official in casino hub of Macau jailed for 21 years in graft case

HONG KONG (Reuters) - Judges in the Chinese-controlled territory of Macau found a former top prosecutor guilty of more than 1,000 charges on Friday and jailed him for 21 years, public broadcaster TDM reported.

The verdict against Ho Chio Meng, who was once tipped as a candidate to head the former Portuguese colony that reverted to Chinese rule in 1999, brings to an end the most high-profile graft case in the world’s largest gambling hub in more than a decade.

Ho was first charged last February after Macau’s anti-corruption agency launched a criminal investigation against him.

Macau, the only place in China where nationals can legally gamble in casinos, has been trying to clean up its act after President Xi Jinping initiated a broad crackdown against corruption in 2014.

Ho, who headed Macau’s public prosecutions office between 1999 and 2014, denied the charges leveled against him, stating in court they were “horrific”.

But he acknowledged that irregularities took place during his tenure.

In an emotional address in March, he broke down in tears as he asked the court to consider the case fairly, pointing out his poor health and the fate of his two children.

Ho and his lawyers have repeatedly stated that the investigation has been biased and that it was impossible for him to have committed the number of crimes he was charged with.

The case involved about 2,000 public contracts, which prosecutors state were illegally awarded by the prosecution office and resulted in benefits to Ho and members of his family.

A lawyer for Ho, Leong Weng Pun, quit the case in March complaining the court was biased.

As Ho’s trial took place in Macau’s Court of Final Appeal he does not have the right to an appeal. Many lawyers in Macau have described that as a violation of the territory’s basic law.

The case is the biggest since former secretary for transport and public works, Ao Man-long, was jailed in 2006 for bribe-taking, money laundering and abuse of power.

There had been no large-scale investigations into officials after Ao’s case until the appointment of Commissioner Against Corruption Cheong Weng Chon, who was sworn in during a visit by Xi in December 2014.

Reporting by Farah Master; Editing by Robert Birsel