Whitehead raid assault claims continue to rise
By SCOTT McKENZIE
ALMOST 40 Vietnamese have come forward in the past two days alleging assault by police or Correctional Services Department (CSD) officers during the controversial transfer of 1,500 people from Whitehead detention centre.
An official tally of 54 cases of assault are already being investigated and a further 50 people are understood to be considering making similar complaints.
Sources in the High Island detention centre, to where the group was moved, say at least 100 people were assaulted including a three-year-old child who was kicked in the stomach by a CSD officer.
Several people have supplied police with statements as part of what is expected to be an investigation incorporated into the independent inquiry established to review the operation.
On Wednesday, the Government said six cases of assault were being investigated by police, but it was aware that 10 people had made similar complaints to the British Red Cross at High Island.
Updated statistics were also released yesterday for the number of Vietnamese who sought treatment for injuries they claimed to have sustained during the operation.
A government spokesman said a total of 250 people had sought medical treatment as of late yesterday.
On April 7, the day of the operation, CSD Commissioner Eric McCosh said only one woman had been injured when she fell from the roof of a hut.
However, on Wednesday, acting Secretary for Security Ken Woodhouse admitted that no checks were made after the operation and that more than 200 people had in fact sought medical treatment.
The Government then qualified this statement on Thursday saying that the casualties figure had been overstated.
Yesterday's figures reflected the number of people seeking treatment since the day of the operation.
It is understood that on Wednesday the Government confused the number of consultations with the number of casualties and was then forced to ask the British Red Cross for clarification.
A total of 1,500 people were transferred from Section 7 at Whitehead to High Island on April 7 in the all-day operation which involved 1,250 CSD and police officers in riot gear who fired an unprecedented 557 tear-gas canisters.
Since then, people have continued to seek treatment at the High Island British Red Cross clinic for burns, sore throats and other ailments.
As a result of the large number of people treated, and the amount of tear-gas fired and the assault allegations, Governor Chris Patten ordered an independent inquiry into the operation.
The two Justices of the Peace leading the investigation, Andrew Li Kwok-nang, QC, and Professor David Todd began the inquiry yesterday with a series of preparatory and administrative meetings.
The Government also announced yesterday that Anthony Bennett had been appointed to act as secretary to the inquiry. He will be given all the support staff he requires.
Until recently, Mr Bennett was Secretary-General of the Standing Committee on Disciplined Services.
Refugee lawyer Michael Darwyne said the inquiry would have the effect of ''running the anger into sand''.
He said the Government should consider more sensible methods of dealing with the Vietnamese which allowed them to maintain their dignity.
''Instead of sending in riot police, why not send in a team of properly trained negotiators with Vietnamese interpreters who they can trust. They would be amazed at how the people would respond if some concern about them as human beings was shown,'' Mr Darwyne said.
Many of the people transferred to High Island fear that they will be moved by force again.
One High Island inmate sent a letter out of the camp which described the scene on April 7 when the authorities moved in with tear-gas.
''I have witnessed many things in this world, but this was the most barbarous oppression that I have ever seen,'' he said.
''It was more brutal as the children couldn't stand the tear-gas the second time, so they ran to the front gate, and the police forced them to go back, and then ripped all their towels off. Then they fired it directly into their faces.
''From that time [April 7] until now, CSD often come and tell us that we must go back to Vietnam. Everybody, I mean everybody, understands they will cheat us by moving us to another camp and then slowly, slowly they will move us back to Vietnam.'' Security panel member Christine Loh Kung-wai will visit High Island today in company with other legislators.