Hitmen 'offered S$18,000' for attack on Hong Kong journalist

HONG KONG (AFP) - Two men charged with a savage knife attack on the former editor of a Hong Kong newspaper were offered HK$100,000 (S$18,000) each to carry out the hit, prosecutors said Wednesday, as they pleaded not guilty.

Kevin Lau, former editor of the investigative Ming Pao newspaper, was left in critical condition after the brutal street attack in broad daylight by two men in February last year, who then escaped on a motorbike.

The attack intensified fears over press freedom in Hong Kong - it came just weeks after Lau was removed from his position at the helm of Ming Pao and replaced with an editor deemed to be pro-Beijing.

Yip Kim-wah, 39, and Wong Chi-wah, 37, are charged with malicious wounding with the intent to cause grievous bodily harm and pleaded not guilty to the charges Wednesday, the first day of evidence in the trial.

"Neither of them knew Kevin Lau. For rewards, he was chopped several times... six in total," prosecutor Nicholas Adams said.

Adams added that the pair had been offered "HK$100,000 each" for the hit, without elaborating on the source of the proposal.

- Censorship fears -

Lau, 50, told the court how he had been attacked as he got out of his car to go for breakfast.

"I felt I was hit by a hard object - my legs felt numb. I lifted my head wanting to know what happened and saw a motorcycle."

Lau said he saw one man hop onto the back of the bike as the driver sped off.

"I saw blood in my palm and my leg had no power, I had to sit on the floor. I knew then I was injured so I called the police.

"I laid on my back as I was worried I would be losing too much blood," he said.

Lau spent five months in hospital after the attack and needs physiotherapy three times a week to treat his legs.

Yip and Wong were denied bail in June last year after being detained in the neighbouring Chinese province of Guangdong and sent back to Hong Kong.

Hong Kong was a British colony until it was handed back to China in 1997 and is ruled under a "one country, two systems" deal that allows it far greater civil liberties than those enjoyed on the Chinese mainland, including freedom of speech and the right to protest.

But there are fears those freedoms are being eroded.

Lau's sacking from Ming Pao triggered staff protests and widespread criticism as Beijing was accused of tightening control of the press in the semi-autonomous territory.

Two other Hong Kong media executives were attacked by four masked men armed with metal bars the month after the assault on Lau.

The city was later gripped by pro-democracy rallies towards the end of last year during which anti-Beijing media tycoon Jimmy Lai was attacked with bags of rotten animal organs.

His house and office were firebombed in January this year.

Self-censorship, the strategic withdrawal of advertising and interference from officials have also rung alarm bells in recent months.