Screening of torture claimants off to slow start

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 June, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 June, 2010, 12:00am

If the first six months of screening torture claimants in Hong Kong is anything to go by, it's going to be a long process. Just four cases have been resolved in that time, and meanwhile, the queue of applicants grows longer.

A lawyer specialising in human rights says more resources need to be put into training lawyers to handle cases.

But Mark Daly also says the training so far has been a big success and that the screening process is at last giving claimants 'a fair shake'.

Lawyers are important to the success of the pilot screening programme. Anyone who arrives in Hong Kong and lodges a claim under the UN Convention Against Torture is assigned a lawyer to assist in evidence gathering and the application process.

An independent appeal mechanism is also in place, adjudicated by experienced magistrates. 'At least under this system, you feel you are going to get a fair shake,' Daly said ahead of the United Nations' World Refugee Day today.

Signatories to the convention, including Hong Kong, cannot expel, return or extradite a person to another state where there are substantial grounds for believing the person would be in danger of being tortured.

However, it was only last year - after years of lobbying from human rights groups, and criticism from judges - that the government put in place a mechanism for screening applicants.

Since screening began on December 24, 876 new claims have been filed, the Security Bureau says.

This has been partially offset by the withdrawal of 750 claims, but still, by two weeks ago the number of claims outstanding had risen to 6,475.

A government spokesman said: 'While the time required to process each torture claim can vary depending on the individual circumstances, we expect that under the enhanced screening mechanism, it should take about four months to conclude a relatively straightforward case.'

Assistance to torture claimants is provided under the Duty Lawyer Service, which has 244 publicly funded lawyers available to provide help under the screening programme. This month a further 159 lawyers underwent training. Daly believes there are too few lawyers to handle cases efficiently, even though earlier this month, the Hong Kong Academy of Law, a sister organisation of the Hong Kong Law Society, held its second major training session for lawyers wishing to assist in the new screening process.

Daly hailed these sessions as a success since they sensitised more than 300 lawyers to human rights issues. 'We now have new allies in pushing human rights effectively,' he said. He was impressed by how quickly the lawyers understood the complexities of the issues and could already highlight areas where problems might arise.

The Bar Association and the Law Society have called for a system which would handle torture claims and screen claims for refugee status.

The city is not a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention, citing its wealth and geographical location as inviting possible refugees to abuse the system. It relies on the local office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to determine whether to grant the status. People can file applications as both a torture claimant and for refugee status, which some do if one bid fails. But they do not receive legal representation automatically. Daly said a new batch of lawyers will have been trained in this area, and may help.