Former British Marine accused in Hong Kong spy case found dead

Matthew Trickett’s death sparks calls for a review of the status of the city’s London trade office.
By Kit Sung for RFA Cantonese, Chen Zifei and Jasmine Man for RFA Mandarin
2024.05.22
Former British Marine accused in Hong Kong spy case found dead Screengrab from a May 22, 2024, video showing Matthew Trickett.
RFA

A former British Marine charged with spying for the Hong Kong government has been found dead in an English park, with police treating his death as "unexplained,” prompting calls for a review of economic and trade links with the city.

"At around 5.15pm on Sunday (19/5) officers attended Grenfell Park, Maidenhead, following a report from a member of the public," the Thames Valley Police said in a statement on May 21.

"Officers attended the scene and found a man. Emergency treatment was commenced but sadly the man was pronounced dead at the scene," it said.

The dead man was identified as Matthew Trickett, 37, who had been charged along with Bill Yuen, an office manager at the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office in London, and British Border Force officer Peter Wai with spying for the Hong Kong government.

They had been due to appear at the Old Bailey – the central criminal court for Britain – on Friday, according to police.

The trio were charged with "assisting a foreign intelligence service" and "foreign interference" under the National Security Act 2023, and stand accused of forcing and entering a property in the U.K. and of targeting exiled Hong Kong activists on British soil, according to the Metropolitan Police and the prosecution.

Ran from court

Trickett’s death came after he covered his face and ran from journalists following a court appearance on May 13.

The case has sparked controversy around the role of Hong Kong’s Economic and Trade Office in London, amid calls from British MPs for a review of its status, with a view to possible closure if the espionage charges are upheld.

“We call on the Government to review the status and privileges granted to the London Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office,” a group of cross-party lawmakers said in a statement on Wednesday that was co-signed by Hong Kong advocacy groups and posted to the Hong Kong Democracy Council website.

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Grenfell Park, in Maidenhead, England, Wednesday May 22, 2024, close to where the body of Matthew Trickett was found on Sunday. (RFA)

“If employees of the HKETO were operating as accomplices of transnational repression, beyond their legitimate remit of economics and trade, the option of closing the London HKETO should be considered,” the statement said.

A senior Hong Kong adviser said last week that the role of the Economic and Trade Offices had changed, and that they should keep an eye on the activities of Hong Kongers living on foreign soil.

But a Hong Kong commerce and economic development official on Wednesday dismissed the adviser's comments as a "misunderstanding.”

Finance Secretary Paul Chan declined to comment on Trickett's death.

Investigations are ongoing and a post-mortem will be carried out, the police statement said, calling on anyone who was in Grenfell Park before 5.15 p.m. to come forward with information.

At the time of his death, Trickett was out on court bail, which required him to register at a police station regularly.

Shockwaves

Trickett's death has sparked fear and concern in the community of Hong Kongers who have settled in the United Kingdom in the wake of an ongoing crackdown on dissent imposed on their city by Beijing to quash the 2019 protest movement that called for fully democratic elections.

"The UK must investigate Trickett's death THOROUGHLY to find out the reason leading to his death and whether any pressure from any parties was involved," U.S.-based activist Frances Hui, who has an arrest warrant and a bounty on her head issued by Hong Kong's national security police, said via X.

Former pro-democracy lawmaker Ted Hui, now in Australia, said Trickett's death could mean critical evidence is lost in the forthcoming trial.

"I think it will have a very serious impact," Hui said. "It can be seen from the charge sheet that the [defendant] who passed away provided very important evidence during the investigation."

"They have now lost the opportunity to cross-examine him in court and to get more information from him ... which will be a big gap when it comes to the court and the public finding out the truth," he said.

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Grenfell Park, in Maidenhead, England, Wednesday May 22, 2024, close to where the body of Matthew Trickett was found on Sunday. (RFA)

Carman Lau, U.K.-based International Advocacy and Program Associate at the Hong Kong Democracy Council, said the news had sent shockwaves through the exile community, many of whom are speculating about foul play.

"There is now one less suspect in the case, and therefore less evidence to investigate," Lau told RFA Cantonese in an interview on Tuesday. "One defendant has died before the trial even started."

She said reports and speculation are swirling around the expat community, creating panic.

"Hong Kongers in the U.K. have one wish: that we will get to the bottom of the matter through the court proceedings, so they don’t have to be afraid," Lau said. She urged the British government to review the status of the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office in London, and to consider shutting it down entirely.

‘Absurd accusations’

The Hong Kong economic offices' job is to promote trade and economic ties with partner countries, Undersecretary for Commerce and Economic Development Bernard Chan told reporters on Wednesday.

“In the future, HKETO staff will continue our work, fearlessly and impartially, following regulations and laws, to promote Hong Kong’s unique advantages and to tell a good Hong Kong story,” Chan said in comments reported by the Hong Kong Free Press.

He refused to comment on what he termed "absurd accusations" of spying activity.

“The ETOs' task is to liaise with the local government, think tanks, different sectors and all walks of life to try to improve or facilitate or foster the cooperation on trade and investment, and also in the area of art and culture,” he said in comments reported by government broadcaster Radio Television Hong Kong.

Yuen and Wai have been barred from leaving the U.K. while out on bail, and must abide by curfew regulations, as well as reporting regularly to the police.

The spying charges come amid simmering tensions between Britain and China, which has said the case had been "fabricated" to "smear and attack" the Hong Kong government.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has said Britain is facing an increasingly dangerous future because of threats from an “axis of authoritarian states,” including Russia, China, Iran and North Korea.

More than 190,000 Hong Kongers have applied for the British National Overseas, or BNO, visa route to long-term residency and eventual citizenship since it was launched in 2021, according to government figures released in November.

Translated by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Malcolm Foster.

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