Defining torture

PUBLISHED : Monday, 01 March, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 01 March, 1999, 12:00am

Ten months ago four police officers were jailed for what the magistrate described as 'the systematic and prolonged use of violence' against a drug addict to get him to confess to possessing dangerous drugs.

Since then, the case has gone to appeal, but it is only recently that the High Court's judgment was published, upholding the verdict. The case was included in the SAR's annual report to the United Nations Human Rights Committee, although in terms which, in the opinion of the Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor, failed to give sufficient details on which the UN could evaluate the case properly.

In dispute here is the nature of the charge, which was filed as assault, rather than torture, because the Government holds that the violence used was not intended to inflict severe pain.

Since two police officers sat on the addict while others gagged him with a shoe and poured water in his ears and nose, and then threatened to throw him over a balcony, the official view of what constitutes severe pain is more than a little disturbing. The case has prompted the Monitor to question the Government's decision in 21 other cases involving immigration officers in which torture was alleged but found to be unsubstantiated.

If the ordeal suffered by the addict does not constitute torture in the official view, it is unlikely that any ordinary citizen, or indeed a jury, would agree.

Nor, it is reasonable to assume, would the UN Human Rights Committee, if the SAR report had included details of the threats against the victim's life.

But so long as the Government's definition of severe pain remains unspecified, there seems little reason to doubt that officers who ignore the rule book and extract confessions by threats and violence will continue to be charged with lesser offences.

Police the world over have been known to overstep the mark on occasion, but there is a wide gulf between assault and torture, and it reflects poorly on the SAR when it does not recognise the difference between the two.