Hope for murderers stuck in legal limbo

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 11 November, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 11 November, 2003, 12:00am

Fate of 25 prisoners jailed as minors hangs on a proposed amendment

The fate of 25 prisoners detained indefinitely for murders committed as minors looks set to be determined in court, years after they were held 'at Her Majesty's pleasure'.

The responsibility of giving them a minimum sentence was shifted from the queen to the chief executive - hence the term 'at the Chief Executive's discretion' - after the 1997 handover.

Six years on, the government has proposed to amend the Criminal Procedure Ordinance so that the prisoners' fate can be determined in court instead.

The proposed change to the ordinance would allow the Court of First Instance to determine a minimum sentence in open court. The amendment has to be passed by the Legislative Council.

Under the proposal, appeals against the sentences may be made to the Court of Appeal and the Court of Final Appeal.

Legislator Leung Yiu-chung, who had been campaigning for the prisoners since 1997, welcomed the proposal but said the court should also allow the prisoners to sit at their hearings.

'The most important thing, I believe, is to let the prisoners stand in court and give their side of their case,' the lawmaker said. 'It would not be very fair to them if the court simply decides their sentences based on the information given in the original trials.

'The court should also give a determinate sentence instead of a minimum one. It has already taken so long for the government to make this proposal, and the prisoners have suffered a lot during that time as they did not have a release date to look forward to. It has been very cruel to them.'

The lawmaker said he would visit the prisoners to discuss the government's proposals with them.

There are 29 prisoners who fall into this category, but four have already been given determined sentences by Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa on the recommendation of the Long-term Prison Sentences Review Board. The quartet will not be subjected to the proposed arrangements.

The government's proposals came after two of the prisoners filed a legal challenge last year, arguing that the existing procedures contravened the Basic Law.

The Court of First Instance ruled in favour of the prisoners, declaring that under Article 80 of the Basic Law, the determination of minimum terms should be vested in the judiciary.