Both the Hong Kong and Taiwan governments have toughened their stances, each demanding the other side's cooperation, in an escalating row over the fate of the fugitive murder suspect whose case sparked the city's extradition bill crisis more than four months ago.
Taipei on Monday said that Chan Tong-kai's offer to surrender himself to Taiwan to face charges over the murder of his pregnant girlfriend was not enough, and that formal talks were required within a mutual legal assistance framework. The Hong Kong government countered that it was a simple matter of the 20-year-old student turning himself in to a jurisdiction where he was still a wanted man.
Chan, who fled home to Hong Kong after the murder early last year, is due to be released on Wednesday following 18 months behind bars on money-laundering charges stemming from the theft of the victim's property and misuse of her finances.
Local authorities could not find enough evidence to prosecute him for the more serious crime committed in Taiwan, and his case was cited by Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor as a key justification for her extradition bill to plug a legal loophole preventing Hong Kong from transferring criminal suspects to jurisdictions with which it lacked a fugitive transfer agreement.
Those jurisdictions also included mainland China, and it was fears about the fate of Hongkongers transferred to the mainland that sparked the public backlash that eventually forced Lam to withdraw the bill in early September. But the protests have yet to die down and the city has been plagued by months of chaos and violence.
"Both Taiwan and Hong Kong have jurisdiction over the case, but because the suspect and victim are citizens of Hong Kong and the suspect is still under detention, the Hong Kong authorities must follow up the case by pressing charges against the suspect before he is released," Taiwan Justice Minister Tsai Ching-hsiang said on Monday.
"The Hong Kong government should not allow the suspect to walk free to avoid destruction or tampering of evidence."
Hong Kong's Security Bureau, however, insisted that Taiwan had "absolute jurisdiction" over the case.
"The surrender does not present any obstacle in terms of legal principles and procedures, and has nothing to do with whether there is any mechanism for long-term criminal juridical assistance or not. The case can totally be handled independently," the bureau declared in a statement.
"It is common practice for jurisdictions around the world to receive self-surrender persons wanted by them as soon as possible … The jurisdiction concerned would not make excuses, cause unreasonable delay or even intentionally refuse the wanted person's entry, as this runs contrary to the objective of listing a person as being wanted."
The bureau urged Taipei to handle the case "with common sense" and uphold justice.
"We shall leave it to the community to judge the implications of Chan's surrender on resolving the Taiwan homicide case, and who is actually manoeuvring the situation unreasonably," it said.
The Taiwan side stressed that it would not drop the case or refuse to accept the suspect's surrender, as long as it was done through "the formal mechanism of judicial cooperation".
Tsai said the Taiwan cabinet had instructed the justice ministry and the Mainland Affairs Council to set up an ad hoc committee to negotiate a settlement with Hong Kong. It should be left to the city's courts, not government, to decide whether Hong Kong had any jurisdiction, he argued.
Mainland Affairs Council vice-chairman Chiu Chui-cheng, at the joint news conference, added: "There is a need for the two sides to establish a lasting mutual judicial cooperation mechanism to resolve issues like this in the future."
Earlier on Monday, Taiwan Interior Minister Hsu Kuo-yung accused the Hong Kong side of turning a blind eye to three requests by Taipei for judicial assistance in the case.
"They didn't even want to share information about the suspect's confession and written testimony about the case with us," Hsu told reporters before a parliamentary meeting.
But a Hong Kong government source said Taiwan was confusing the issue of extradition with judicial cooperation.
He said that while Taiwan authorities had indeed approached the Hong Kong government for information earlier, it had failed to provide a detailed list of what was needed, and that there could be no exchange of case evidence with a third party once judicial proceedings had started.
Case evidence could now be handed over, and all problems could be solved, provided Taiwan authorities were willing to accept Chan's surrender, the source said.
"We have had precedents before. Taiwan authorities' rejection of Chan's offer goes against all common sense and precedents," the source said.
In 2016, three murder suspects who fled Hong Kong for Taiwan were sent back to the city in an arrangement unprecedented since the 1997 return to Chinese sovereignty.
Hong Kong and Taiwan law enforcers have also exchanged intelligence in recent years to bust drug syndicates and phone scams.
In 2015, police from both sides worked on a joint operation to rescue Hong Kong tycoon Wong Yuk-kwan when he was kidnapped in Taiwan.
Simon Young Ngai-man, a law professor at the University of Hong Kong, said he was puzzled by Taiwan's stance.
"It is not a case of the Hong Kong government seeking the assistance of the Taiwanese authorities on a reciprocal basis. It is simply a case of a wanted person surrendering to Taiwanese jurisdiction," Young said.
"If the message got out that Taiwan no longer receives the voluntary return of fugitives outside of diplomatic channels, then that would be bad news for criminal law enforcement in Taiwan."
Copyright (c) 2019. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.