Taking a stand against injustice

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 December, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 10 December, 2006, 12:00am

Faced with security officials insisting Hong Kong had not prosecuted a single torture case because there had never been a problem with official torture in Hong Kong, Human Rights Monitor director Law Yuk-kai calmly pulled out a sheet of paper and narrated a graphic account of how police officers had systematically tortured a drug addict while questioning him in 1997.

His account at a Legislative Council meeting last week shocked both legislators and government officials.

Mr Law told how, over a four-hour period, four officers at a Tsuen Wan housing estate in March that year handcuffed the suspect, sat on his chest and legs, poured water into his mouth and nose until he lost consciousness, and later threatened to throw him from a 16th floor balcony. The officers were later convicted of assault.

Mr Law, the United Nations Committee against Torture and several legislators believe that was just one of many examples of torture carried out by police.

'The government claims there has never been such a case. This shows that the claim by the government is a total lie,' Mr Law said. 'If this does not constitute torture, then probably no case will ever satisfy any criteria.'

Legislators then questioned principal assistant secretary for security Alan Lo Ying-ki, but he was caught unawares and could not deal with their questions.

It is this kind of knowledge of human rights cases, controversies and crusades in Hong Kong that has made Mr Law a stalwart in the rights community. And as the world marks International Human Rights Day today, Mr Law tells of his difficulties in a city where the fight for democracy remains an uphill one.

Born 49 years ago to a farmer in a village near Shing Mun reservoir in Sha Tin, Mr Law developed a strong sense of injustice at a young age.

'My father was a flower farmer and I remember when I was very young that he would sell flowers in the street, but officers demanded payment from him,' he said.

'Hawkers were arrested when caught, but those who paid up were allowed to keep their flowers and their key operators could stay behind. I remember being taken away in a police van and I would bring along a HK$100 note. I paid and was freed.'

Perhaps it was living through such injustice that spurred Mr Law to take such a strong stand over the years in his fight for the rights of abode seekers, ethnic minorities, homosexuals, refugees and others.

In the 11 years since Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor was set up and Mr Law hired as director, he has handled many important issues. In that time, he has been threatened and pressured, and seen many victories and defeats. The one event that stands out most vividly in his mind, he says, is the reinterpretation of the Basic Law in 1999 by the National People's Congress Standing Committee - an interpretation he calls 'a pure display of political power' which displaced 'hundreds of thousands of people in a very brutal, uncivilised manner'.

The interpretation of Article 24 of the Basic Law overturned a Court of Final Appeal ruling which would have reunited thousands of mainland-Hong Kong families. The government at the time warned that the ruling could have seen an influx of 1.67 million mainlanders.

'We saw so many sad stories in the cases we faced,' he said. 'We set up stalls in Chater Garden to accept cases with which to challenge the interpretation but our resources were so limited that we had to stop after receiving about 4,000.'

'Our office was crammed with people using laptops to input information - on their laps because there was just no room to move. We had [human rights lawyer] Pam Baker helping us out but it was a nightmare. We couldn't really help much in the end but we couldn't just let this happen and do nothing.'

'It was a pure display of political power, with officials coming up with bogus statistics to justify the government position and without any respect for the rule of law.'

Mr Law said the power of the public should never be underestimated. The march of about 500,000 people on July 1, 2003, was a tremendous demonstration of that power. Such dedication was sadly lacking during the right of abode saga, he said.

'People must be vigilant to protect their rights and those of others,' he said. 'If we narrowly interpret our rights, in the end, we all lose.'

Mr Law also told of the time a student phoned the office, saying he wanted to visit and discuss a protest he had helped organise in defiance of the Public Order Ordinance.

'Less than half an hour later, the street below our office was filled with police officers,' he said. 'It would have been a scandal if a person coming to our office for assistance had been arrested before reaching us.

'I spoke to the police and they assured me that anyone coming to our office would not be arrested. However, the person did not turn up in the end.'

The student was later one of the first people to be charged under a controversial provision in the law making it a criminal offence to organise an 'unlawful assembly'. A landmark judgment from the Court of Final Appeal in the case affirmed the freedom of assembly and declared the police had a positive duty to facilitate demonstrations.

Mr Law hailed Hong Kong's independent judiciary as an indispensable arbiter of human rights, but said more was needed.

'Universal and equal suffrage are very important,' he said. 'Without them, people cannot participate effectively in society.'

Without true democracy, people can hardly enforce their rights and cannot prevent rights from being taken away by bad legislation. Just look at the proposed anti-racism law. The government is determined not just to minimise litigation but to minimise its own obligations.'

Mr Law does not take his six-year-old son to every protest rally he attends but his wife often brings the child along, and he is already showing signs of being a budding activist.

'He likes to use the megaphone and appeal for signatures and he likes distributing leaflets - most recently in [jailed Hong Kong journalist] Ching Cheong's case,' Mr Law said. 'But we are careful not to pressure him. He should do whatever he is passionate about.'

Mr Law is passionate about many causes, but his battle for universal and equal suffrage is dominant. He has been fighting this battle since he joined a district councillor's office in the early 1990s.

'I have lost all my hair but have yet to see it. The fight goes on.'