The family of a Hong Kong man serving a 40-year jail sentence in the Philippines for drugs possession are racing against time to find crucial immigration records they believe could prove he is innocent.
The deadline for Tang Lung-wai, 47, to submit supporting documents to the Philippines’ top court for an appeal against his case from 2000 falls next Wednesday.
Legislator Paul Tse Wai-chun, who has been helping Tang and his family, said Hong Kong immigration exit records from June 2000 could show Tang was not in the Philippines when the alleged offence for which he was convicted took place.
Hong Kong’s Immigration Department gave the family the information back in 2006 and they passed the papers to Tang’s lawyer in the Philippines. But for an unexplained reason the lawyer lost the document, Tse said. The law firm later shut down and staff could not be reached.
Hong Kong authorities would no longer have the records, Tse said.
“We understand the immigration authorities do not keep such records for that long. But if there are other relevant documents that could support Tang’s status at that time, it will certainly help a lot in the appeal,” Tse said, citing as an example a declaration from the immigration officer who handled the request by Tang’s family in 2006.
Through his contacts in the Philippines, Tse said they had obtained “through unofficial channels” information that showed the Philippine immigration bureau’s records also had Tang entering the country after the alleged offence took place.
The records he obtained were not admissible in court. “And the Philippine authorities would not present the records to the court either,” Tse said.
Tse said Chinese embassy officers visited Tang on Wednesday and briefed him on the latest progress.
Lisa Tam Sin-man, a core member of the Tang Lung Wai Incident Concern Group, formed by his friends and supporters, said: “It is the last chance. We hope the Hong Kong government will not give up helping Tang.”
Tam, who last visited Tang in June, said: “He was sort of fine and strong-willed.”
Tang, a bartender, entered the Philippines as a tourist in June 2000 to meet a friend, Cheung Tai-on. The day before Tang was meant to return to Hong Kong, he was arrested and taken to police headquarters where he was told to admit to drug offences but he refused.
According to Tang, he, Cheung and a third Hong Kong man were then taken to a room in a residential building. Officers later searched the room and found a plastic bag containing 8kg of the drug Ice, or methamphetamine, under the bed.
The trio were detained and their case dragged through the country’s legal system. It was not until 2011 that Tang and Cheung were sentenced. Tang received a life sentence – 40 years’ jail. The third man was freed. Cheung died in prison.
Tang maintained he was innocent and had been framed. He applied to have his case reviewed in 2012 but it was abruptly called off by the authorities. The court later upheld the earlier ruling.
He is serving his sentence at the notorious New Bilibid Prison, about 20km from downtown Manila.
Tang’s elder brother, Tang Lung-piu, said of the appeal: “We are prepared for the worst, but hope for the best. The legal system in the Philippines does not seem much like that of Hong Kong.”
Tang said the family never went to the Philippines to hear his brother’s case in court or visit him, for fear they might also be detained. “Mother heard rumours they would arrest family members of criminals as well. So she never let us go,” the brother said.
Tam said the last resort might be to apply to transfer Tang back to Hong Kong to serve the rest of the sentence.
“But Tang does not want to because the mechanism applies to convicted persons. He wants to return home as a free man,” she said.
Hong Kong has prisoner transfer agreements with 17 jurisdictions, including the Philippines.
The Security Bureau, in a statement last night, said the immigration records had been destroyed after the 10-year retention period. However, the government would continue to “proactively follow up and provide practicable and appropriate assistance”, it said.