MORE THAN 400 people applauded the new film From the Queen to the Chief Executive at its local premier on May 8, but Tung Chee-hwa was not among them. The Chief Executive, who figures prominently in the movie's plot but does not appear on screen, was too busy to attend.
The film, directed by Herman Yau Lai-to, describes the situation of 14 convicted underage murderers originally held for indefinite terms 'at Her Majesty's pleasure' and now held 'at the Chief Executive's discretion'. The film's release promises to rekindle a controversy Mr Tung and his top officials would prefer to ignore - although Secretary for Security Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee did venture into a screening last Sunday, she declined to comment.
The original intention behind not setting definite prison terms for juvenile murderers was to monitor each convict's behaviour and grant an early release once he was deemed fit to rejoin society. The purpose was to facilitate the rehabilitation of young offenders.
But the system seems to have failed all but one of 15 young prisoners whose detentions straddled the change in sovereignty - nearly four years after the handover, 14 are still serving indefinite terms. After a campaign in 1997 by independent legislator Leung Yiu-chung for definite sentences, prisoners held at the Chief Executive's discretion were given minimum terms of 15 to 30 years but no maximums, so in effect they remain in indefinite detention.
From the Queen to the Chief Executive is refocusing attention on their situation. And Mr Leung, once frustrated with the seeming futility of his efforts to get definite terms, is taking advantage of the renewed interest generated by the film to launch another campaign on behalf of these 14 'forgotten' men.
'I will fix an appointment with members of the Long-Term Prison Sentences Review Board in coming weeks and tell them the minimum-term arrangement is absolutely unfair for these prisoners,' he says. 'I will try to persuade the board to recommend definite sentences as soon as possible. The board should let the prisoners know their fate, so they can prepare to re-integrate into society.' The 11-member independent statutory body reviews sentences every two years and has so far recommended a definite term for only one of the prisoners held at the Chief Executive's discretion. The board is chaired by Mr Justice Leong Siu-chung, the chief judge of the High Court, and its other members include a lawyer, a psychologist and a social worker. The Security Bureau is apparently feeling sufficient heat concerning the remaining indefinite terms that it was moved to issue a statement on Thursday saying the current sentence-review system 'has maintained a proper balance between the interests of the prisoners and the need to protect the public'.
But Mr Leung, whose previous efforts to get definite terms were snubbed by officials and his colleagues in the Legislative Council, is not satisfied. He remembers a private meeting with Mr Tung in 1998. Although Mr Leung is an outspoken unionist, he put aside labour and unemployment issues and instead begged the Chief Executive to consider the cases of these prisoners.
'Mr Tung was moved by their plight and asked me why I hadn't approached him earlier,' Mr Leung says. 'He promised to ask his aides to follow the cases.'
But Mr Leung heard nothing thereafter. And that brings to mind another part of his conversation with Mr Tung, when they were discussing Chief Justice Andrew Li Kwok-nang's December 1997 recommendation that the prisoners receive minimum terms of 15 to 30 years.
'Mr Tung felt strange when I told him he was empowered under the Basic Law to pardon people convicted of criminal offences,' Mr Leung recalls. 'He said: 'Mr Andrew Li is widely respected in the legal sector. How can I disregard his recommendations?' '
A spokesman for the Judiciary said the Chief Justice had considered all relevant factors - including the gravity of offences, the judges' comments and the prisoners' written representations - when recommending the minimum terms to the Chief Executive.
The Government sees the setting of minimum terms as the first step in the process of determining whether and when the prisoners can be released. Deputy Secretary for Security Jennie Chok Pang Yuen-yee says the minimum term is a 'milestone'.
'It's the first step, and it's much better than before,' she says. 'Constitutionally, the Chief Executive can disregard the board's recommendations and order far shorter terms. But he has to offer convincing justifications.'
Before the early 1980s, prisoners detained at Her Majesty's pleasure were usually given definite terms of 12 to 15 years after having been detained for three to six years. Mrs Chok admits today's minimum terms are longer than the definite terms of two decades ago.
'The board's recommendations might be a reflection of society's attitudes towards young prisoners,' she says. 'The board members might think these prisoners should be given punishments proportionate to the seriousness of the offences they committed.'
Mrs Chok contends the present arrangement is lenient. 'Don't forget they have committed serious criminal offences. If they had been convicted of murder when they were above the age of 18, they would have received life sentences.'
Principal Assistant Secretary for Security David Wong Fook-loy says since 1997 adult murderers previously sentenced to death have received an average definite term of 36 years. Hong Kong abolished capital punishment in 1993.
But Mr Leung, the legislator, says this shows the minimum terms given to the 14 young murderers detained at the Chief Executive's discretion are even heavier than the definite terms meted out to adult murderers. The regular convicts might be released on parole after serving two-thirds of their sentence.
'They [the young murderers] should be punished for their crimes,' Mr Leung says. 'But can't our society show some forgiveness towards these prisoners, who are sincere in seeking rehabilitation?'
Gary Cheung is a staff writer for the Post's News Desk (email@example.com)