Hong Kong leader exempted from penalty after breaching election rules

Hong Kong chief executive John Lee failed to submit supporting paperwork on time for three endorsement ads. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

HONG KONG (AFP) - A Hong Kong court on Thursday (Aug 18) decided not to penalise chief executive John Lee for late paperwork filed during the election bid where he ran unopposed for the city's top job.

Mr Lee, 64, a former security chief who oversaw the crackdown on Hong Kong's democracy movement, was chosen as the finance hub's leader in May after winning 99 per cent of votes from a small committee of Beijing loyalists.

He was the sole candidate to stand but nonetheless received a raft of endorsements and spent around HK$2.4 million (S$422,971) on advertising.

Authorities said Mr Lee failed to submit supporting paperwork on time for three endorsement ads, an offence that could be punished by up to HK$5,000 and six months in jail.

But Judge Queeny Au-Yeung ruled on Thursday that Mr Lee's non-compliance was "caused by inadvertence" - one of the legal grounds which could permit a waiver.

"The delay in uploading was a relatively short one. There was no bad faith shown," the judge wrote, adding that Mr Lee had a "candid" attitude.

The judge said Mr Lee gained no special advantage, and accepted his explanation that the forms were submitted late amid "heavy workload, tight timeframes, limited manpower and lack of communication".

In April, Mr Lee's campaign office promised to be "more careful" after three consent forms were found to be handed in late, with his campaign manager asking for the public's understanding.

For a leadership race, Hong Kong requires endorsements to be backed up by written consent forms, which must then be submitted to election officials and displayed to the public.

Similar court cases involving Hong Kong's election rules have ended less favourably for pro-democracy opposition figures.

In 2021, Hong Kong authorities used a similar law on election paperwork to oust an elected pro-democracy activist, who the court described as "reckless" in failing to submit written consent for his ads.

In April, former law scholar and activist Benny Tai was jailed for 10 months for placing newspaper ads during an election to promote his tactical voting strategy, which a court said broke Hong Kong's laws on election expenses.

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