An unemployed woman who fled Hong Kong the day she was found guilty of blackmailing her mother 23 years ago was jailed for three years on Wednesday after the judge who convicted her two decades prior commended her courage in returning to the city.
Tsui Shum Mary had set her mother's home on fire and damaged multiple household items following an unsuccessful attempt to blackmail her then 76-year-old parent for HK$2 million in living expenses in January 1997.
She was found guilty of blackmail, arson and criminal damage, but was not there to hear the November 13, 1997, verdict, as she had left for Shanghai on the same day.
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On Wednesday, defence counsel Stephen Hung Wan-shun revealed that his 72-year-old client had wanted to return to Hong Kong and face criminal liability after suffering a stroke in 2017 and subsequently becoming a Christian.
But she had no valid identity documents, so it was not until May 14, 2020, that she finally returned to the city after securing a special one-time permit from authorities.
Hung said his client had been financially dependent on her mother, even after fleeing to Shanghai, until she passed away in 2009.
But he also said Tsui’s childhood on the mainland had been a sad one, as she felt abandoned by her mother after she moved to Hong Kong and remarried.
Tsui later joined her family in the city and formed one of her own, with four children, but found her marriage unsuccessful due to her husband’s infidelity.
She then grew apart from her children due to years of absence in Shanghai – until her son and daughter-in-law found her there in 2013. The court heard her second daughter also visited in 2015, but Tsui remained distant from her eldest and youngest girls.
Regardless of whether [Tsui] returned to Hong Kong for medical treatment, a family reunion or out of regret, her courage shown in leaving her comfort zone after 23 years was commendable
Madam Justice Maggie Poon Man-kay
Medical reports from the Correctional Services Department further revealed that Tsui had been diagnosed with high blood pressure, depression and self-harming tendencies.
In sentencing, Madam Justice Maggie Poon Man-kay, who presided over the 1997 trial while still a district judge, said she could still vividly recall the testimony of Tsui’s mother, whom she described as “very sharp”.
The judge observed that arson is an extremely serious crime in a crowded place such as Hong Kong, where sudden fires can have grave consequences. But she also acknowledged Tsui had only used a lighter – without any flammable liquid – and that her offence had taken place in a low-density block at Yau Yat Chuen in Kowloon Tong.
“Regardless of whether [Tsui] returned to Hong Kong for medical treatment, family reunion or out of regret,” Poon said, “her courage shown in leaving her comfort zone after 23 years was commendable.”
Balancing Tsui’s background and the need for a deterrent sentence, Poon adopted an overall sentence at 42 months, before giving her a six-month discount to account for her special circumstances.
Arson is punishable by life imprisonment, but capped at seven years at the District Court.