New strategy needed

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 16 May, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 16 May, 2002, 12:00am

Of all the basic human rights, the liberty of the person is paramount. For stripped of the freedom to move beyond the confined space of a prison cell, one can hardly exercise the other freedoms to which he is entitled.

It is the hallmark of a civilised society that a person is presumed innocent until proven guilty, and that no one should be locked up before he is convicted by a court unless there are compelling reasons to do so.

Sadly, while these basic rules of justice appear in the statute books of most jurisdictions, they are not strictly adhered to in many, including mainland China. Ten Hong Kong people have languished in mainland jails for more than eight months, most of them without charge. Countless numbers of mainlanders suffer the same fate.

That such shocking detentions are still prevalent is most regrettable. In recent years, the media in Hong Kong and the mainland have both highlighted numerous cases of people being held in breach of detention rules by local authorities.

Although the publicity led to the release of some victims, it has failed to prompt the relevant authorities to become more law abiding. Even the notification system set up to require local authorities to inform the SAR Government of the detention of Hong Kong people has been ignored from time to time.

On the grounds that it cannot interfere with the operation of the mainland's judicial system, the SAR Government has been publicly circumspect in helping the victims, preferring behind-the-scenes lobbying.

But since such quiet persuasion has met with limited success, it is perhaps time a change of strategy was considered. What is wrong with the SAR Government taking active steps to ensure the local authorities stick to the law?

Under mainland law, a suspect's family or defence lawyer can demand his unconditional release if he is held beyond the lawful period of detention. SAR officials would do well by helping the victims' families exercise their legal rights to secure the release of their loved ones, and complementing their efforts by bringing the cases to the attention of the central Government and the relevant local authorities.

Doing so may raise a few eyebrows among the law-breaking officials, and may even be counter-productive in some cases where local officials are too powerful.

But a calculated risk needs to be taken, because the ultimate solution to the serious problem of unlawful detention lies in ensuring a high standard of compliance with the law by the mainland authorities.