HONG KONG (Reuters) - Hong Kong businessman Carson Yeung was sentenced to six years in jail on Friday for money laundering in a high-profile case that law enforcement officials hailed as an important victory to combat money laundering in the global financial hub.
Yeung, 54, who was found guilty by a Hong Kong court on five counts of money-laundering some HK$721 million ($93 million) over several years, is a flamboyant self-made millionaire and owner of British football club Birmingham City.
In the detailed exposition of hundreds of suspicious transactions made by Yeung and multiple parties, the trial cast a rare spotlight on some of the murky channels and methods used by underground banks and money launderers in moving illicit capital between China, Hong Kong and the gambling hub of Macau.
"Maintaining the integrity of the banking system is of paramount importance if Hong Kong is to remain an international finance center," said District Court Judge Douglas Yau.
"The sentence must include an element of deterrence to discourage those who are in a position to exploit the system for their own gains through money laundering and to send the message that...the law will come down on them with full force."
Yeung, dressed in a dark suit, appeared relaxed and waved before being taken away. His defence lawyers declined to comment on whether he would appeal.
Police investigators, who described the case as a difficult one involving analysis of financial records from as far back as 2001, welcomed the sentence even though it was less than the maximum 14 years possible for such crimes.
"We overcame a lot of hurdles to get this result," said Gloria Yu, a police investigator, to reporters outside the courthouse. "We are happy...and encouraged because fighting money laundering is a very arduous task."
Yeung, a former hair stylist to Hong Kong's rich and famous, who pleaded not guilty, had told the court he amassed his wealth through his hair salons, share trading, property purchases, gambling in Macau and other investments.
The trial, which lasted more than 50 days, revealed the businessman's close ties to Macau's casino world, both as an investor and gambler, and how that facilitated business investments that helped him amass further wealth.
Yeung told the court how he first started gambling in the former Portuguese enclave around 1997 and in 2004 was introduced to the Neptune VIP Club inside the Lisboa casino.
In 2005, two businessmen, Lin Cheuk-fung and Cheung Chi-tai, offered Yeung the chance to invest in junket operator Neptune Group. Junket operators bring in gamblers from mainland China and offer lines of credit and often collect debts from them.
A Reuters' 2010 special report found links between Cheung and organised criminal gangs, or triads, and a casino run by gambling goliath Las Vegas Sands in Macau. (http://reut.rs/1fcLwB5)
While Cheung hasn't been convicted of any triad-related crimes, his organised crime affiliation was corroborated by U.S. authorities and former and current police officials.
The Hong Kong court heard how Yeung had received hundreds of deposits of unclear provenance for what Yeung claimed to be winnings from his gambling. These included cash payments from Cheung and a tranche of cheques worth HK$72.5 million ($9.34 million) from Macau casino operator Sociedade de Jogos de Macau S.A., part of SJM Holdings Ltd, which is owned by gambling tycoon Stanley Ho.
Yu, the police investigator, admitted many aspects of the case remain unsolved including, crucially, the origination of much of the laundered cash. But she said that investigations would continue in a bid to bring others to justice.
The judge said that while Yeung wasn't the mastermind or "director" of a laundering scheme, "without his considerable skills in share dealings and connections to the Macau casinos, the laundering could not have gone on for such a long time and on such a large scale."
Yeung, who bought Birmingham City Football Club in 2009, stepped down last month as head of the club and its holding company, Birmingham International Holdings Ltd.
After Yeung was convicted, club officials said the verdict would have no impact on its day-to-day operations.
(Editing by Matt Driskill)