Several New Zealand properties and other assets linked to the Crafar Farms scandal will remain frozen for at least another year as those accused of the conspiracy await a retrial.
The Serious Fraud Office (SFO) may also be on the hook for significant costs if the case ends in acquittals after a joint evidence-gathering exercise with Hong Kong's Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) led to the criminal charges.
After a lengthy trial, May Wang, Jack Chen and Eric Yee were all convicted in 2016 of two charges of conspiracy to defraud the Hong Kong stock exchange and the listed company Natural Dairy Holdings Ltd and its shareholders.
The alleged fraud was over the sale of 22 North Island farms belonging to Crafar, once thought to be NZ's largest family-owned dairy business, which collapsed when milk prices plummeted in 2009.
Chen, aka Chen Keen, a former director of Natural Dairy, was also convicted of money laundering and sentenced to seven years and nine months in prison. Wang, aka May Hao, was jailed for eight years and three months, and Yee, aka Yee Wenjye, a Singaporean national and New Zealand resident, was imprisoned for five years.
All three were disqualified from managing companies for 10 years.
The trio's first appeal was dismissed before a determinative bid was mounted last year at the Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal.
In a turn of events, however, the top court found the convictions were unsound and there was a risk the jurors might have convicted the group without agreeing upon who was part of the conspiracy.
The judges said the jury had not arrived at a valid verdict and the prosecution might not have proven their alleged criminal agreement beyond reasonable doubt.
"This is fatal to the convictions of all three appellants," the court ruled.
It allowed the appeals on the grounds of latent duplicity, quashed the trio's convictions and ordered a retrial, Hong Kong court documents obtained by the Herald show.
In a judgment from the same court in January, it was also ordered that the costs of the preliminary inquiry, which included an evidence gathering exercise in New Zealand by the Serious Fraud Office (SFO), will form part of the costs of the retrial.
In a statement to the Herald, the SFO said: "We note the decision of the Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal and will await any further request from the Hong Kong authorities for assistance in relation to the retrials."
Meanwhile, a foreign restraining order by the High Court of Hong Kong, first registered in New Zealand in September 2013, was due to expire last Wednesday.
It had frozen several multi-million dollar properties and North Island farms, shares, and bank accounts belonging to Wang, Chen and his wife, former Natural Dairy executive Ye Fang.
Before it expired, however, the Crown applied for a one year extension of the order, which has already been extended several times during the past decade.
Chen and Fang also sought a variation to allow for some of the frozen money to be used to pay Auckland Council rates and other charges relating to other restrained property.
Justice Neil Campbell allowed the money to be transferred directly from the bank accounts to Auckland Council, court documents obtained by the Herald show.
He extended the restraining order until September 2 next year.
Chen, who is understood to have arrived in New Zealand in 2002 and became a permanent resident, forged business links with a handful of high-profile New Zealanders, including former Prime Minister Dame Jenny Shipley and ex-All Black Michael Jones.
His involvement with the long-running Natural Dairy saga began after he joined the company as its co-chairman in May 2009 and a bid was made to buy the Crafar farms.
Four of the 22 farms were initially bought for $25.5m in 2010 by the company, which was involved in manufacturing and exporting NZ dairy products to China, and a deposit was later paid for the remainder, pending Overseas Investment Office (OIO) approval.
But later that year Wang was declared bankrupt in New Zealand and the OIO refused to grant permission for the purchase of the remaining farms.
Sixteen of the farms were eventually bought in 2012 by China's Shanghai Pengxin for a sum thought to be about $200m.
After the SFO's joint investigation with the ICAC, Wang and Chen were arrested and charged in Hong Kong in late 2011. Yee was charged in early 2012.
The ICAC alleged the group conspired by dishonestly inducing Natural Dairy to buy the Crafar farms at an inflated price.
A company operated by Wang, UBNZ Asset Holdings, was to purchase the farms and Natural Dairy was to acquire that company's share capital for $500m.
Although Crafar Farms were on the brink of bankruptcy, Chen and Wang were also accused of arranging false accounting records, overstating the profit of the farms by $50m.
It was claimed Chen gained $23.5m and Wang $201.6m.
Fang was also convicted of dealing with the proceeds of crime in 2014 and jailed for six years and six months.
However, in 2016, she and solicitor Wu Wing Kit - who was jailed for six years for money laundering - had their convictions quashed by Hong Kong's Court of Appeal, the South China Morning Post reported.
According to Kit's lawyers at Winston & Strawn he was acquitted after the retrial in 2017.
Natural Dairy has said it is also pursuing civil proceedings in Hong Kong.