- Associated Press - Friday, February 22, 2019

CANBERRA, Australia (AP) - Chinese-Australian billionaire Chau Chak Wing was awarded 280,000 Australian dollars ($200,000) in damages on Friday by an Australian judge who ruled he was defamed by a media report that insinuated he bribed a former United Nations general assembly president.

The businessman, philanthropist and generous political donor sued Fairfax Media and journalist John Garnaut over an online story published in October 2015 under the headline: “Are Chau Chak Wing’s circles of influence in Australia-China ties built on hot air?”

Garnaut later became a China analyst who was commissioned by the Australian government to write a classified report that found the Chinese Communist Party for a decade had tried to influence Australian policy, compromise political parties and gain access to all levels of government.

The report led to Parliament passing laws last year forbidding covert foreign interference in domestic politics and making industrial espionage for a foreign power a crime. The laws created a diplomatic rift with China.

Federal Court judge Michael Wigney found the Fairfax Media article contained three defamatory meanings - that Chau bribed former U.N. General Assembly president John Ashe, was part of a plot to bribe Ashe and acted in so seriously wrong a manner as to deserve extradition to the United States on criminal charges.

Chau welcomed the decision, saying his faith in the Australian legal system had been vindicated. He said in a statement that he would donate the damages awarded to charity.

The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age newspapers, formerly owned by Fairfax Media, which merged in December with a television network to become Australian media giant Nine, said in a statement that the ruling would be appealed.

The judge found the article went beyond simply conveying a suspicion that Chau had bribed Ashe.

“Rather, by a combination of disparagement, insinuation and suggestion, it effectively imputed guilt,” Wigney said.

Australian government lawmaker Andrew Hastie last year repeated in Parliament the accusation that Chau had conspired to bribe Ashe.

But because Hastie made the accusation in Parliament, he cannot be sued for defamation. Nor can any media organization be sued for reporting anything that is said in Parliament.

Hastie told Parliament that Chau was the real estate developer referred to in an unsealed U.S. indictment as “CC-3,” which is short for the third co-conspirator. Chau allegedly arranged to pay $200,000 in 2013 to Ashe to attend a conference in China, plus $25,000 for the travel expenses of Ashe’s entourage.

Hastie told Parliament that during a visit to the United States a month earlier, U.S. officials confirmed to him that the 63-year-old Chinese-Australian dual citizen was CC-3.

In Beijing, a foreign ministry spokesman said at the time the accusation was “purely fabricated out of thin air and not worth refuting.”

The alleged go-between for Chau and Ashe, U.S. citizen Sheri Yan, was sentenced in 2016 in the U.S. District Court in New York to 20 months in prison. Yan pleaded guilty to a bribery charge.

Ashe had died weeks earlier in an accident in his New York home. The 61-year-old Antiguan diplomat had been waiting to stand trial after pleading not guilty to a tax charge related to the case.

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