ICAC's task tougher, its own powers fewer

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 25 August, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 25 August, 2004, 12:00am

I refer to your leaders headlined 'Reckoning bell tolls for anti-corruption agency' and 'Time for a review of ICAC's powers' (August 12 and 18).

The leaders centred on an investigation by the Independent Commission Against Corruption into alleged serious offences, including conspiracy to pervert public justice and violation of the Witness Protection Ordinance, subsequent to a corruption investigation involving a publicly listed company. Following a Court of First Instance ruling on the legality of the search warrants that we earlier obtained from it, the ICAC has upon legal advice lodged an appeal to the Court of Appeal. It is our belief that a further ruling would provide clearer guidelines for law enforcement agencies to follow in the future.

There is no need to go over details of the case as it has been widely reported in the media. Nor should I do so, now that the date for the appeal hearing has been fixed. However, I feel obliged to furnish your readers with additional information on the work of the ICAC.

As your leaders rightly pointed out, the ICAC has over the past 30 years contributed to transforming Hong Kong into one of the cleanest cities in the world. Backed by a sound legal framework and strong public support, we now not only have a clean and efficient civil service, but a level playing field in the private sector, much to the envy of many places eagerly luring business investors.

Indeed, we live in a different world today. Corruption crime has grown in complexity and sophistication. Of concern is that corruption often becomes part and parcel of organised crimes. It goes without saying that graft remains a secretive crime essentially involving two 'satisfied parties', posing obstacles to anti-graft investigators. To effectively police corruption today and tomorrow, as it was in the dark old days, law enforcement officers need adequate investigative powers.

We in the ICAC are fully aware that these powers are vested in us by the community. Indeed, changing circumstances have over the years necessitated a number of reviews of the statutes enforced by the ICAC to enhance its accountability to the public. Of note are two major and extensive reviews.

The first major review came in 1991 with the enactment of the Bill of Rights Ordinance. All legislation with regard to the ICAC was then placed under close scrutiny to ensure its compatibility with the ordinance. In 1994, the independent ICAC Review Committee, chaired by Dr Helmut Sohmen, conducted another wide-ranging review of the ICAC's powers and accountability. The high-powered committee, while affirming the need for the ICAC to maintain necessary, appropriate and sufficient powers to effectively fight corruption, recommended that certain of its powers should be transferred to the court. The committee noted that it had striven conscientiously throughout the exercise to strike the right balance between the public's demands for a strong and effective agency to fight corruption and at the same time for greater accountability and transparency in the use of the ICAC's powers. The recommendations were subsequently put into effect through legislative amendments after careful deliberation by the Legislative Council.

As a result, most of the ICAC's investigative powers can now be exercised only with the consent of the courts. For example, the ICAC has to seek court approval to search premises, obtain information about property held by a suspect and restrain a suspect from disposing of property.

To say the ICAC remains in possession of sweeping powers as it had in the early years is at best an overstatement. To prevent excesses, the ICAC is also subject to a robust and elaborate mechanism of checks and balances. The ICAC is tasked to carry out investigation and collect evidence of corruption and related crimes. The prerogative to prosecute rests with the Department of Justice. Finally, the judiciary rules supreme on all ICAC cases and serves as the gatekeeper in ensuring that it has used its powers properly.

As pointed out in your leaders, the ICAC has gone a long way in gaining international respect for its work. It is true that the ICAC was established out of pervasive corruption in the public sector. Yet we have to be thankful to the foresight of our predecessors that the ICAC has been charged with a mandate to clean up corruption not only in the public sector, but in the business sector.

Exactly because of this holistic approach and its consequential benefits to Hong Kong as an international financial centre, hundreds of visitors from abroad visit the ICAC each year to study the ways in which Hong Kong has tackled corruption. Contrary to what has been asserted, the ICAC shares and exchanges experience with these visitors 'for free'. International co-operation is essential for effectively containing corruption and, resources allowed, the ICAC is ready to contribute.

There is no question that the ICAC, in full accordance with the law, will remain impartial and dedicated to its mission, without fear or favour. The ICAC was established to serve the community together with our strategic allies, including the mass media, for which we have every respect. As in the past, the ICAC is open to advice and suggestions that could improve our efficacy in tackling corruption.

One particular point mentioned in your leaders: that two persons arrested in the aforementioned ICAC operation were released 'unconditionally'. An arrestee refusing ICAC bail will be released on a non-prejudicial basis, subject to continuing investigation.

ERIKA HUI, director of community relations, Independent Commission Against Corruption