Government must ensure full accountability for Lamma ferry crash

Albert Cheng questions why the boat captains have been charged with manslaughter before the report of the inquiry has been made public

PUBLISHED : Friday, 26 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 26 April, 2013, 2:27am

Following the death of 39 people when two vessels collided off Lamma Island during the National Day fireworks display last October, the Leung Chun-ying administration immediately appointed a high-level independent commission to look into the cause of the accident. The collision was Hong Kong's worst maritime accident in more than 40 years.

The commission's hearing, which has just finished, disclosed many details about the collision.

Meanwhile, the captains of the two vessels have each been charged with manslaughter.

During the inquiry, questions were raised about the structure of the pleasure vessel and whether this contributed to the number of fatalities. This means the shipbuilding company should also be called to account. In addition, officials from the Marine Department, who inspected the boat and issued a seaworthiness certificate, should be held accountable.

A detailed report has been submitted to the government, but it has yet to be made public, yet Secretary for Justice Rimsky Yuen Kwok-keung has already overseen charges against the two captains, who each face 39 counts of manslaughter. His action is not only against normal practice, it is also baffling.

He seems to have ignored any alleged liability on the part of the shipbuilder and Marine Department for the accident. His conduct gives the impression that he is allowing trial by public opinion. This goes against the principles of procedural justice.

I am not defending the actions of the two captains. If they are found by the courts to be guilty of gross negligence and therefore responsible for the tragedy, they should pay the price and be punished according to the law. But we have a duty to ensure law and order in Hong Kong, one of our most cherished core values, is maintained. All legal hearings and judicial processes should be bound by the principles of the rule of law and procedural justice and should not at any time contradict the spirit of the law.

The hearing was told that there were flaws on Lamma IV that made it vulnerable to damage and prone to sinking quickly. A commission-appointed naval architect had found that the side plates of the boat were thinner than the design standard and the upper deck seats were inadequately fixed. Perhaps most serious of all, the expert testified that the boat was missing an internal watertight door that could have prevented it from flooding and sinking so quickly.

These findings raise questions about whether the boat was soundly built.

The inquiry also heard that Marine Department inspectors tasked with checking the seaworthiness of the boat should have noticed that a watertight door was missing - a departure from the ship's plans - and rejected the licence. As counsel for the commission Paul Shieh Wing-tai SC told the inquiry: "[The department] missed a golden opportunity. All these safety considerations have all been missed … perhaps at great cost."

So why at this stage is Yuen only prosecuting the captains? According to press reports, the lawyers paid by the captains' companies are no longer representing them; they must feel somewhat abandoned.

If all this had happened elsewhere, I'm sure that the head of the Marine Department would have been held accountable - along with the relevant policy bureau, in our case the Transport and Housing Bureau, and its secretary, Anthony Cheung Bing-leung.

Since the handover, the quality of our administration has got worse.

Since Leung took over as chief executive last July, we have seen the governing team fumbling through policy after policy without proper direction or implementation.

Many policies, such as banning expectant mainland mothers from giving birth in the city, limiting the export of milk powder to ensure local supply, as well as land and housing policies are all half-baked, ineffective and full of loopholes.

This incompetence has made Hong Kong an international laughing stock. Leung and his team seem to think that once they have announced a policy, that means they have implemented it. They have forgotten that they must walk the walk.

Our government has lost its authority to govern, as well as the respect of the people of Hong Kong. By not following the book and going against rules and regulations in implementing policies and maintaining the rule of law, the government risks damaging the good reputation it has taken so many years to build, and the core values of the city.

This case has also exposed the inadequacy of Yuen as justice secretary. We must not allow our justice secretary to put political calculations above public justice, because that will eventually erode Hong Kong's core values and moral standards, which form the bedrock of any decent society.

Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator.