Birmingham City owner on trial in Hong Kong

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Hong Kong (AFP) – Former hairdresser-turned-football tycoon Carson Yeung went on trial in Hong Kong Wednesday on money-laundering charges involving tens of millions of dollars, with his lawyers pleading his innocence.

The Birmingham City owner was arrested and charged in June last year with five counts of “dealing with property known or believed to represent proceeds of an indictable offence”.

Prosecutors have said about HK$720 million ($92 million) passed through accounts connected to the 52-year-old businessman, but his defence lawyer denied the charges at the start of the 15-day trial.

“The prosecution’s allegation is simply the fact that he was a hairdresser and now he has so much money,” counsel Joseph Tse told the district court in the southern Chinese city, which was packed with journalists.

“He was already wealthy before the money-laundering allegations.”

Yeung, who entered the court by a side door to avoid press photographers, appeared calm in the dock as his legal team submitted their arguments.

The defence team said the prosecution was planning to call 19 witnesses including forensic experts and bank officials.

They appealed for an adjournment, saying they need more time to prepare the case, but denied Yeung is trying to delay justice.

“He knows he can’t escape the destiny of the trial,” Tse told the court.

The prosecution objected to the application, on which the court has yet to rule.

Yeung failed in his bid last week to have the case postponed for six months on the grounds that most of his assets have been frozen, preventing him from hiring a legal team.

The case also stopped him from travelling to Britain last year to attend to his duties at the debt-ridden English football club.

The district court granted him permission to travel, only for the High Court to overturn the ruling after prosecutors argued there was a risk he might not return to Hong Kong.

Yeung took control of Birmingham City in October 2009 in an £81 million ($130 million) takeover from David Sullivan and David Gold, now the co-owners of West Ham.

“I have loved football since I was a child. My family were very poor and we didn’t have any money to see the football games, but I loved the sport,” he told Birmingham City’s website in 2007.

“I think football should be for everybody, not just the rich man,” he said, explaining his decision to take over the club.

The club’s fortunes however have gone downhill. They were relegated from the Premiership three months after winning the League Cup amid financial troubles.

Yeung has assured Birmingham City he will continue to support the club financially despite his legal problems.

His other business interests include investments in “apparel sourcing trading, entertainment and media services” through Birmingham International Holdings, according to the firm’s listing on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange website.

Birmingham International Holdings, controlled by Yeung, is the parent company of Birmingham City.

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