Safeguards needed

PUBLISHED : Friday, 07 June, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 07 June, 2002, 12:00am

The unique status and political conditions of Hong Kong are such that any initiatives which have the slightest possibility of encroaching on personal freedoms are subject to the strictest scrutiny.

While the Government has tried to present the United Nations (Anti-Terrorism) Bill as adopting a minimalist approach in implementing a United Nations Security Council resolution aimed at preventing and suppressing the financing of terrorism, a closer look has since revealed many problems.

The bill seeks to empower the Chief Executive to list people and organisations as terrorists or terrorist bodies based on the labelled parties' acts, not beliefs.

That would seem to allay concerns that bodies such as the Falun Gong, a cult banned on the mainland as a subversive body, might fall victim to such a law.

Yet, legal eagles have since found that the bill's definition of a 'terrorist act' is so vague and over-broad that it could still pose a threat to civil liberties.

Even more controversial is the absence of any legislative checks on the listing powers of the Chief Executive. The Post once noted that lengthy deliberations in the legislature on whether a party should be branded a terrorist might affect timely actions to combat terrorism.

But if the respective legislatures of the United Kingdom and United States, where the threat of terrorism is much greater, have a role to play in the listing process, there is no reason why our legislature should not have such a power.

As it is, the bill's only safeguard against abuse of executive powers is a provision allowing those labelled as terrorist to appeal to court. But the recent row between the police and the Independent Commission Against Corruption has highlighted one thing - an allegation that one might have committed a crime could cause serious damage to the victim's reputation.

In that case, an ICAC press release disclosed that several police officers had been arrested for allegedly accepting free sex in exchange for providing tip-offs on anti-vice operations. The officers have not been charged yet, but the publicity generated by the release sparked the row.

For anyone branded as a terrorist, much more than their standing in the eyes of their friends and the community would be at stake, as they would virtually be regarded as criminals and their assets frozen.

Indeed, the consequences of wrongly branding a person terrorist are so serious that legislators have suggested the victim be compensated. But as Albert Ho Chun-yan pointed out, inserting a compensation clause into the bill might not help, because it would be difficult to prove that the law enforcement agencies had acted in bad faith.

As the effects of listing any person or organisation as terrorist could cause grave and irreparable damage, it is better to be safe than wrong. The administration should seriously consider putting in more checks and balances against any recommendations to apply any such labels.

Just as the police now need to go to court to obtain search warrants, perhaps the Government should be required to satisfy the court that it has a really strong case to label anyone a terrorist.

Understandably, critics of the bill are concerned that if it got through the legislature in its present form, it could set an alarming precedent.

In his second term as Chief Executive from July, Tung Chee-hwa's administration is expected to introduce laws to implement article 23 of the Basic Law to prohibit acts of treason, secession, sedition or subversion against the central Government.

It would be worrying if such laws were to grant similar powers to the Chief Executive to list any people or organisations as posing a threat to national security without adequate safeguards.