Tragic case of Amber Poon: murdered in Taipei but killer unpunished

Nov 10, 2021
Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal
Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal (Image: Unsplash)

A Hong Kong woman’s murder led to controversial extradition law which were withdrawn after subsequent protests so the killer avoided justice. 

Most readers of Pearls and Irritations will have a reasonable knowledge of recent tumultuous events in Hong Kong, and probably many could recall the infamous extradition bill which was the spark that lit the fire. But how many will know the curious and sad story of Amber Poon, which marked the start of the drama and continues to this day?

The story begins in February 2018 when Poon and her boyfriend Chan Tong-kai went on holiday to Taipei. While the details of what exactly happened are unclear, one thing is certain: Chan murdered Poon, stuffed her body into a pink suitcase, took the subway and stashed the case in bushes on the outskirts of Taipei before heading back to Hong Kong. How do we know Chan was the killer? Because he admitted to the murder.

Chan returned to Hong Kong and, in what was not the smartest move, used Poon’s ATM card to withdraw money from her account. Police were alerted when Poon failed to return to Hong Kong and it did not take long for their investigation to lead to Chan. Police in Taipei had by then located Poon’s body through CCTV recordings.

On the face of it, no problem in charging Chan with murder. But the crime was committed in Taiwan where Hong Kong police have no jurisdiction. The best they could do was to charge him with the crime he did commit in Hong Kong, money laundering. At the same time Chan, perhaps feeling remorseful, admitted murdering Poon.

Chan pleaded guilty to four charges of money laundering and was sentenced 29 months in jail, meaning he was due for release in October 2019, at which point he would able to walk freely around Hong Kong.

The prospect of a self-confessed but unconvicted murderer walking the streets did not appeal to the Hong Kong government and it put together legislation enabling the extradition of suspects to the jurisdiction in which the crime was committed. Although this case was the trigger for the extradition legislation, there had already been calls by various organisations for Hong Kong to improve its extradition arrangements.

It was at this point that it all turned pear-shaped, with some weaponising what was a reasonable piece of legislation into something that every person in Hong Kong should fear, sparking months of protests. The bill was eventually withdrawn. And while it is fair to say the Hong Kong government was somewhat inept in its handling of the legislation, it is also fair to say Chan’s case was simply ignored by the protesters.

In October 2019 Chan walked out of jail and to this day remains free in Hong Kong, although he was apparently given accommodation in a safe house and, for a time, a police escort.

Fast forward a while and Poon’s mother, distraught at the injustice, picks up the cudgels on behalf of her murdered daughter. Also entering the scene is cleric Peter Koon, whose motives for seeking to help resolve the situation remain unclear.

Now it all might seem simple enough. Chan, who says he is prepared to face charges in Taiwan, just has to get on a flight to Taipei and hand himself over, but after two years this has not happened. According to Koon, Chan is willing to hand himself over but he needs some form of documentation from Taiwan to travel there, and this apparently is not forthcoming. But it is hard to say if this is really the case. Is Chan so remorseful that he does indeed wish to turn up in Taiwan to serve extended jail time for murder? Or is he trying to “game” the situation to save his skin?

One can only speculate at Chan’s hesitancy to return to Taiwan and face trial for a murder he has already confessed to, but perhaps it has something to do with the fact that Taiwan, despite its polished image of a freedom-loving nation, still has the death penalty, while Hong Kong, ruled by overlords in Beijing, removed capital punishment from the statute books some years ago.

Last month marked the second anniversary of Chan’s exit from prison, and Poon’s mother is using this to ratchet up her demands for justice, making some well-publicised but ineffective appearances outside government offices and attracting the attention of some politicians.

So what should be a straightforward matter for a self-confessed murderer to have his day in court has become a game of political football with everybody pointing the finger at others. One can only wonder at the injustice of this case, and whether the grief of Poon’s mother as her daughter’s killer walks freely around Hong Kong is regarded as just collateral damage.

Following the enactment of the national security law in Hong Kong, many anti-China countries, including Australia, cancelled extradition agreements with Hong Kong. So it is now appropriate to consider the ramifications of these actions using Poon’s murder as an example.

Let’s say a murder, child abuse, a rape or other crime is committed in Australia and the perpetrator manages to leave the country and reach Hong Kong. At this point this person is now home free, holding the perfect “get out of jail” card. In the absence of a treaty there is no possibility that this person will be extradited to Australia. So a parent, partner or relative in Australia will be left suffering the same frustrations as Poon’s mother. And the blame will lie with the Australian government.

And serious thought should be given to the role of Taiwan in this affair, as it seems clear that Taipei was prepared to use Chan as a pawn in its endless political drama instead of enabling justice to be done – unimpressive from an island that purports to be democratic.

And of course Hong Kong has now become a magnet for anyone seeking to escape the long arm of the law, as however long that arm may be, it can no longer reach a suspect in Hong Kong. Crimes committed in Australia or elsewhere will remain unpunished. Whether Poon’s mother ever gets the justice she deserves is highly doubtful.

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