HONG KONG (Reuters) – A murder suspect whose case led to mass street protests in Hong Kong walked free from jail on Wednesday as the city’s government squabbled with Taiwan, where he is accused of murdering his girlfriend, over how to handle a promised voluntary surrender.
Chan Tong-kai, a Hong Kong citizen, was accused of murdering his girlfriend in Taiwan last year before fleeing back to the Chinese-ruled financial hub.
Chan, wearing a navy blue shirt and red backpack, bowed and apologized to the family of his ex-girlfriend and the public as he left the prison in Hong Kong’s rural Sai Kung district after serving 29 months for money laundering.
He said he had made an “unforgivable mistake”.
Chan also said he would turn himself in to Taiwan authorities but declined to say when.
While Chan has offered to surrender himself voluntarily, Hong Kong and Taiwan have clashed over the next steps.
Embattled Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam held up Chan’s case as an example of why an extradition bill was needed. Such a bill would have allowed suspects to be sent from Hong Kong to greater China, including the mainland, Taiwan and Macau.
The former British colony has been reeling from five months of unrest originally triggered by the proposed extradition bill but which has now evolved into a pro-democracy movement.
The government has announced it will withdraw the bill but the protests have not stopped. The city’s legislature is due to withdraw it formally on Wednesday.
Hong Kong authorities said on Wednesday Chan should be free to go to Taiwan and surrender himself.
However, Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council said in a statement it was “unbelievable” that Chan could be expected to take a flight to Taiwan by himself, “completely ignoring the safety of passengers on the same flights in order to serve the political arrangement of a ‘surrender’”.
It said Taiwan had repeatedly asked for legal cooperation.
“We are solemnly telling the Hong Kong government that you have to take full responsibility for all bitter consequences,” the council statement said.
Taiwan has also said it wanted to send officers to Hong Kong to escort Chan back to the self-ruled island upon his release, a move the Hong Kong government has described as a disrespectful and unacceptable attempt to cross legal jurisdictions.
Chan was arrested by Hong Kong police in March 2018 and authorities there were only able to find evidence against him for money laundering.
Lam reluctantly agreed to withdraw the extradition bill two-and-a-half months after anti-government protests escalated in June, although its formal withdrawal is unlikely to end the unrest.
Protesters are angry about what they see as Beijing encroaching on Hong Kong’s “one country, two systems” formula enshrined during the handover from British to Chinese rule in 1997. That formula allows the city wide-ranging freedoms not available on the mainland, such as an independent judiciary.
The extradition bill was seen as the latest move by Beijing to erode those freedoms. China has denied such claims and accuses foreign countries of fomenting trouble.
The Financial Times, citing people briefed on the deliberations, reported on Monday China is drawing up a plan to replace Lam with an “interim” chief executive.