Judges should refrain from “authoritarian decisions” – Lawyers Association President

The President of the Macau Lawyers Association, Jorge Neto Valente, today (Wednesday) made some criticisms to the way the high profile Macau Trade and Investment Promotion Institute (IPIM) was handled and the statements made by the case’s pressing judge during sentencing.

During his speech at the 2020/2021 Judicial Year opening, Valente stated that court verdicts should not be “authoritarian decisions” and must be “grounded with logic, reasoning, thoughtfulness, and always with clarity and common sense”.

“Only then will they be understood by the recipients and accepted by society. When any of these requirements are lacking, they may be imposed, even by force, but do not give prestige to the courts that issue them,” Valente added.

Valente later confirmed to Macau News Agency (MNA) that some of the statements during his speech were an indirect reference to the verdict and comments by the judge presiding after the verdict issued last week for the high-profile Macau Trade and Investment Promotion Institute (IPIM).

The trial ended with the former IPIM President, Jackson Chang, receiving a two-year effective prison sentence for breach of secrecy and inexact asset declaration but was acquitted of the most serious cases placed against him, including abuse of power, corruption, and criminal association charges by the Court of First Instance (TJB).

Prison sentences were also handed to former IPIM Executive Director, Gloria Batalha Ung, to former IPIM’s Residency Application and Legal Affairs Division chief, Miguel Ian Iat Chun, with judge Leong Fong Meng issuing harsh criticisms to the defendants for choosing their right to remain silent during the trial and inferred they had not been convicted of corruption because the evidence to prove so was insufficient.

Valente stated that he would refrain from commenting on an ongoing trial case – with appeals still pending – but admitted that he did not have a “favourable view” over the statements made by the presiding judge.

“I will not make comments on an ongoing case, but I can say that we have to reinforce the right to remain silent and presumption of innocence of defendants until proven guilty,” Valente added.

The AAM President also criticised the way such high profile cases are handled by some local authorities which initially “declare criminal accusation that sticks to the person in the court of public opinion”.

“The IPIM President was accused of being the mastermind of a criminal association and accepting bribes and was acquitted but how many people noticed that detail? Who remembers he was acquitted of that? […] What sticks are the first news that came out,” Valente added.

The lawyer also considered there was still “high disproportionality” in the prison sentences handed, stating that nowadays prison sentences handed for white-collar crimes were almost the same as for murder.

As an example, he mentioned businessman Ng Kuok Sao, which the court considered to be the head of an organisation responsible for illegally providing assistance in obtaining local residence permits through IPIM, who was found guilty of criminal association, producing fake documents, among other charges and sentenced to 18 years.

“To me, an 18-year prison sentence is already something that could be handed to someone that had stabbed somebody,” he added.

During his previous speech, Valente had also stated that a broad and in-depth debate on justice reform in the courts was “essential and urgent” but not just restricted to “some human beings who think they are enlightened and are convinced that they have a monopoly on civic and patriotic virtues”.

For the AAM President, this debate would reduce the “opacity of the institutions and to the courts of Macau to be honoured, locally and abroad” and would improve the perception residents have of local courts

“The independence of the courts is not achieved by their isolation and distance from society. More important than the assertion of independence by the holders of judicial bodies is the perception that society has of that independence and the credibility that the population recognizes for them,” the AAM President stated.

“Because the independence of the courts, more than a right of those who exercise judicial power, is a right of citizens to obtain decisions that apply the law to concrete cases, impartially and without interference from anyone”.

According to Valente, it is not enough for courts to say they are independent but to also show that they are independent so that local residents can feel that they do not suffer from political interference.

“A lot of people have doubts […] I think there is less confidence in the court today than there was some years before, that’s my opinion. This is the result of how the highest court in the land the Court of Final Appeal works with only three judges who decide in ways that people do not always understand or accept,” he noted.