By: Our Correspondent

Tsui Po-ko – known to many in Hong Kong as the “Devil Cop” after a spectacular shootout
a year ago – was a serial killer, according to the results of a 37-day coroner’s
inquest.

A five-person jury declared this week that
the dead constable was responsible for the ambush-style shootings in a Kowloon underpass in March
2006 that resulted in his death and that of another police officer. The
incident had the ancillary effect of putting Hong Kong’s police force on public
trial for corruption, consuming vast pages of coverage in Hong
Kong’s fevered newspapers and hours of television time.

Tsui was killed in a murky gun battle on
March 17, 2006, along with Constable Tsang Kwok-hang. Constable Sin Ka-keung was
wounded. The jury also concluded that Tsui was the killer in two previous
unsolved murders: those of Constable Leung Shing-yan, who died in a shooting at
a housing estate in March 2001, and security guard Zafar Iqbal Khan, killed
during a robbery at a Hang Seng Bank branch nine months later.  

The Hong Kong
police have spent three decades fighting – with considerable success – an
earlier reputation for dodgy dealing, turning a blind eye to drug smuggling and
accepting bribes. In the 1970s, when the Independent Commission Against
Corruption was formed to clean up the force, many high-ranking police were
forced into retirement. According to one history of the police,
119 officers were asked to leave under the
provisions of colonial regulations, another 24 were held on conspiracy charges
and 36 officers and a customs official were given amnesties.

But there is considerable concern in Hong Kong that whatever Tsui was up to has again
diminished the force’s reputation.   Attention
has largely focused on the jury’s findings.

Thursday’s lead headline on the front page
of the South China Morning Post
summed it up: “Jury finds Tsui unlawfully killed three.” But nobody bothered to
mention that an inquest jury has no place ‘finding’ such things at all. The
purpose of a coroner’s inquest is to determine when, where, and how a person
died, and who that person was. What such an inquest cannot do is apportion blame or denote liability. That is the arena
of a criminal trial.

The jury’s verdict in this inquest wasn’t
just unusual – it was unheard of. This was the first time in Hong
Kong that an inquest sought to identify a killer.

But that wasn’t the only disquieting aspect
of the proceedings. At the start of the hearings, Tsui’s mother, Cheung
Wai-mei, was denied legal aid – purportedly because she owned assets worth more
than the maximum threshold for entitlement – and only received last-minute, and
under-prepared, representation by two lawyers who volunteered their services.
Meanwhile, the police spent a year compiling evidence to produce at the
inquest.

On top of that, soon after the Tsim Sha
Tsui shootings, and long before the much-delayed inquest began, police had
already pointed the finger at Tsui, labelling him a rogue cop. Fewer than three
weeks after the underpass incident, police linked Tsui to the unsolved 2001
killings. “There should be sufficient evidence to charge the suspect on all
three [killings] had he been alive,” the Hong Kong Police security bureau told
the Legislative Council Panel on Security on April 6, 2006. A full year passed
until there was a public hearing. 

Critics have pointed out that Tsui,
presumably a clever, street-wise cop, would have been foolhardy to take on two armed
comrades in an ambush with only a single, supposedly rusty pistol he had taken
in an earlier murder.

Nonetheless, Tsang, posthumously, and Sin
were both awarded the Medal for Bravery, for “exceptional courage and gallantry
of the highest order during a life-threatening situation.”

What wasn’t decided at the inquest were
Tsui’s motives. The suggestion that the police were involved in illegal soccer
gambling went unresolved, despite a credible investigative report by the Sunday Morning Post’s Niall Fraser that
cited multiple sources saying Tsui had probably gone into the underpass that
night to discuss gambling debts with the other officers. The same report quoted
police sources as saying that police-gambling links dated as far back as 2000,
when they were the subject of a too-hot-to-handle internal investigation.

The police have accepted the jury’s
findings. Chief Superintendent Philip Choy Kin-cheung said: “The police will
respect the verdicts. It was an open and transparent inquest.”

And well they should. In Tsui, a dead and
demonised bad cop, they have a culprit that can be blamed for three unsolved high-profile
killings that have embarrassed the police and called into question their
position as “Asia’s finest”. It may well have
also conveniently buried the investigations into illegal gambling within the
force.