A lack of judgment on raid

PUBLISHED : Monday, 20 June, 1994, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 20 June, 1994, 12:00am

THE Government-sponsored report of the inquiry into the April 7 raid on the Whitehead detention centre is dissatisfying because it chooses not to pass judgment on several key aspects of the operation which involved assault, excessive use of tear-gas and resulted in many injuries.

The report recounts the events relating to the raid. The level of detail is useful because it allows the public to draw its own conclusion, particularly on those aspects which the two justices of the peace who conducted the inquiry chose to be silent.

The criticisms made are in general not linked to specific officers who were responsible for the operation, even in the cases where the justices found substantiated allegations of assault. Instead of accepting responsibility, the police said subsequent to the report that it was the fault of the Vietnamese.

The report highlights the need for improved communication with the Vietnamese. It points to the inadequacy of only having four counsellors and interpreters on hand to persuade 1,500 Vietnamese on April 7 that the military-like raid was only a camp transfer exercise. The fact that insufficient counsellors were on hand to communicate with the obviously anxious detainees indicates that communication was not a priority.

The Government's operation was based on the ''worst scenario . . . that is the outbreak of mass disorder'' in the whole of Whitehead. None of what was expected as acts of resistance, like the throwing of stones and metal objects, taking hostages or pouring of boiling water or molten plastic, actually happened.

What took place was not anticipated. For example, that the detainees would climb on to the roofs of their huts in order to escape from tear-gas and that this would present high risks of physical injuries. When the detainees were finally willing to come down from the roofs, there were insufficient ladders of proper height and strength to help them down.

The report pointed out that ''many officers expressed surprise . . . of the extent of the injuries sustained . . . the security forces underestimated this risk''. Despite this damning admission of oversight, the report merely concludes that the officers' training and experience has been with the use of tear-gas to disperse crowds on level ground. Would it not have been appropriate to criticise senior officers for negligence in their duty? The operation was planned with efficiency in mind. If humanity was given adequate weight, then presumably the plan would have included more communication and dialogue with the Vietnamese. The first round of Mace and tear-gas was fired 20 minutes after the troops arrived at 6am when ''virtually the entire population in Section 7 was asleep''. Whatever came through the loud-speakers was not heard by most of the detainees.

The report questioned whether the second and third rounds of tear-gas needed to be fired at the time that they were because conditions had not escalated. The field commander was criticised in the report for following the pre-set plan and not reviewing the situation. The report also criticised the quantity of tear-gas used as ''excessive''. ANOTHER factor which points towards the low priority given to communication was the rejection of an offer from a spokesman for the detainees to have a neutral third party to monitor the camp transfer and to assure the Vietnamese that the operation was indeed a camp transfer and not repatriation.

The lack of humanity can also be demonstrated on two other aspects of the raid. A significant number of Vietnamese lost nearly all their belongings. The Vietnamese do not own very much. It is entirely understandable that they remain ''very upset and bitter'' about the loss of personal items such as photographs, address books and documents.

The report describes the Government's handling of the release of information to the public about the raid as ''inept''. It was not merely incompetence. There was no provision to keep a record of injuries which was presumably why no one really knew until the public demanded to know.

If the Government continues to show so little concern about the Vietnamese, it will continue to have trouble getting their co-operation. This cannot be desirable. Hong Kong does not want to see another needless confrontation with the Vietnamese.