Rehabilitation the issue, not sympathy

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 05 September, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 05 September, 2004, 12:00am

The possible release later this year of one of the men responsible for the Braemar Hill murders will understandably provoke strong emotions.

This was an exceptionally brutal crime which shocked and appalled our community when it was committed in 1985. And the sense of outrage which it evokes has not diminished over the years.

The Braemar Hill gang subjected their two teenage victims to a dreadful ordeal. Nicola Myers was raped and suffered 500 cuts to her body. More than 100 injuries were inflicted on Kenneth McBride.

It is difficult to feel any sympathy for the killers. But there is no need to. That is not the issue. The question of when - and if - they should be released is one which concerns the nature of our penal system. It is one which, sooner or later, our community must face.

Won Sam-lung was 16 at the time of the murders. He was given an indefinite prison sentence. Before 1997, this took the form of being detained 'during Her Majesty's pleasure'. This type of punishment was reserved for juvenile offenders. It was supposed to bring in an element of compassion, by giving the authorities the flexibility to release prisoners when they were deemed fit to return to society.

Won's case is understood to have been considered by a review board and a determinate sentence imposed which could see his release soon.

His release would therefore be an example of the system working as it should. He has been in prison for almost 19 years. The board's decision should be respected, given the notoriety of his crime it is not one which would have been taken lightly.

Other prisoners have not been so fortunate. Cheung Yau-hang was also 16 at the time of his involvement in the Braemar Hill killings. He admitted his guilt, co-operated with the police and showed some remorse. He also claims to have played a relatively minor role. None of this removes the fact that he willingly participated in a truly terrible crime. But it does suggest that there might be some hope for his rehabilitation.

Cheung was also given an indefinite sentence. And still, he does not know when or even if he will be released. The chief justice imposed a minimum term of 30 years. There is, as yet, no maximum.

Such an approach leaves Cheung and 12 other juvenile murderers with no release date to work towards. It gives them no hope. With this in mind, the law was changed in July. Now, Cheung and other prisoners in a similar position may apply to the court for a determinate sentence.

There will be those who say we should throw away the key. And relatives of the two young victims might understandably find it hard to accept that the killers may be released.

But giving the prisoners a release date is a humane step to take. It at least enables them to finally look forward to rejoining the community - and hopefully becoming responsible members of it.