Coroner orders autopsies on all victims
Martin Wong and Tanna Chong
The coroner yesterday ordered autopsies on the eight victims killed in Manila, but direct involvement by Hong Kong in the Philippine investigation of the shootings appears unlikely due to sovereignty concerns.
Secretary for Security Ambrose Lee Siu-kwong disclosed this at a special security panel meeting to discuss the tragedy yesterday. Before the meeting started, officials and lawmakers observed three minutes' silence to pay tribute to the victims.
Representatives of the Philippine consulate were invited to attend but declined, saying in a letter to the legislature that it was not the right moment. A team of representatives from the country will fly to Hong Kong for talks with the government soon.
Many lawmakers demanded the government actively take part in the investigation with the Philippines.
Unionist legislator Ip Wai-ming said Hong Kong could not trust an investigation conducted by the Philippines alone, given the impotence that the police had shown in the hostage drama. 'The Hong Kong government cannot say it is powerless to carry out a direct investigation of the tragedy with the Philippine government. We must act tough,' he said.
The vice-chairman of the security panel, James To Kun-sun, said it was hard to have any trust in a Philippine investigation after the consulate said a final investigation report could be released within a few days.
'It is simply impossible ... There are more than 100 witnesses who should be interviewed,' he said. 'And there should be results of autopsies and ballistic testing. How can they offer us a final report in a few days? Is it possible that it can be a thorough one?'
Legislator Lee Cheuk-yan also demanded that Hong Kong investigate the tragedy directly.
'Can we have Hong Kong representatives in the investigation team so that we have direct and first-hand information over the investigation?' he said, adding that it was hard to trust law enforcers in the Philippines following the incident.
The security chief urged legislators not to make any judgment over the investigation report before its release. He said it was difficult for the Hong Kong government to be directly engaged in the investigation.
'If we become involved in another country's investigation, it is intruding on that country's sovereignty. We have asked the foreign ministry of the central government for its opinion and were told it would be inappropriate [to be involved in the Philippine investigation],' he said.
Following repeated criticisms from lawmakers, Lee finally said: 'We understand such a demand now and we may reflect it to the concerned parties.'
Lee noted that the coroner had made eight orders for autopsies on the eight victims and had decided that an investigation into the deaths by the police should be carried out.
The coroner would decide whether an inquest should be held after receiving the reports of the police investigations. Lee noted it was the role of the Coroner's Court, not the government, to decide whether an inquest was needed.
'Can we really help the investigation if we send our people to Manila?' he said. 'Can we do a better job with the autopsy reports and statements from survivors here? We can also get any witness statements and evidence that the Philippines obtained under the mutual legal assistance agreements.'
He added that government officials who went to Manila earlier had already started compiling information about the tragedy.
'Officers from the organised crime and triad bureau flew to Manila and took testimony at midnight of August 24,' he said, but refused to say whether they had spoken to anyone other than tour members.
Hong Kong forensic experts also took part in some of the post-mortem examinations in Manila.
'We participated in the studies of two of the bodies,' Lee said. 'The other three bodies were finished with the post-mortem by the time our officers arrived.' Families refused to have autopsies conducted on three of the bodies in the Philippines.
Lawmakers urged that, to keep pressure on Philippine authorities, the black travel alert for the country not be cancelled until an impartial investigation report had been received. Lee did not respond to the demand directly but said: 'I agree that there may be risk in travelling to the Philippines now. We will not cancel the travel warning at the moment.'