New approach urged on torture claimants seeking HK asylum

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 13 January, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 13 January, 2009, 12:00am

Immigration officials must change the way they deal with thousands of torture claimants seeking asylum in the city, the president of the Law Society warned yesterday.

Adding his voice to a growing chorus of criticism over the issue, Lester Huang said people who may face torture in their home countries deserved the kind of legal protection available to all Hongkongers.

'We are here speaking of an individual's fundamental right not to be subjected to torture, and we cannot as a community consider this lightly just because ... torture does not generally occur in Hong Kong' or a Hong Kong resident was not involved, he told about 800 local and visiting legal dignitaries assembled for the opening of the legal year at City Hall.

'For justice to be done for those who are genuine claimants, Hong Kong must be better positioned by putting in place a fair and efficient framework. We in Hong Kong can do much better.'

Mark Daly, a human rights lawyer who has challenged the city's asylum-seeker policy, described Mr Huang's remarks to an international audience as 'somewhat unprecedented'.

'The whole area needs legislation - the government should have been doing this long ago,' he said.

Mr Huang's comments came one month after a Court of First Instance judge ruled that Hong Kong had violated its international obligations to fairly assess asylum seekers' claims.

Mr Justice John Saunders catalogued several deficiencies in the current process, including the fact that torture claimants were denied legal aid, decision-makers were not properly trained to assess torture claims, and there was no right to appeal against a decision at an oral hearing.

None of the 200-odd claims assessed had been successful, the judge noted in his ruling on December 5.

Mr Huang told the audience last night: 'It seemed from reading the judgment that the government presumes that there is neither a need nor a right for a claimant to have legal advice in the course of the screening process.

'I strongly urge the government to address the issues stemming from these cases, and review its system and procedures so that claims by potential torture claimants are dealt with in accordance with international legal standards.'