Abuse claims show need for better monitoring of all uniformed forces in Hong Kong

Albert Cheng says there must be a credible probe into allegations of mistreatment of young offenders by prison officers. An independent body that oversees all eight disciplined services is the answer

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 10 August, 2017, 6:30pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 10 August, 2017, 7:37pm

Claims of mistreatment of young offenders by Hong Kong prison officers began to surface in June, and were recently flagged for attention by lawmakers Fernando Cheung Chiu-hung and Shiu Ka-chun. In one media report, interviews with 50 former inmates revealed shocking claims of torture by Correctional Services Department officers.

Allegations include being forced to taste their own faeces. And some were said to have been forced to pour hot porridge on their heads because they could not finish the food quickly enough. Such outrageous behaviour, if true, is unacceptable, and clearly violates the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Cheung and Shiu are said to have even collected the names of officers who were allegedly involved, and are urging the government to set up an independent investigation. The Correctional Services Department has referred the case to the police.

Hong Kong’s prison system explained

Justices of the Peace, who are appointed by the chief executive, inspect prisons, detention centres and other institutions regularly. The accompanying officers are obliged to answer questions. All inmates have the chance to request a private session with the visiting justices to lodge any complaints, and the justices have to ensure the complaints are handled in a fair and transparent manner. In 2015, for example, a total of 138 complaints were received during the justices’ visits.

Time and again, the department has stressed prisons officers’ discipline and code of conduct have been strictly upheld. It says there is zero tolerance of violations of regulations. Yet, the scandal calls into question the effectiveness of these inspections.

Cheung looked into the record of the inspections since 1999. He found that from 2013 to today, eight complaints were filed by juvenile inmates. Four cases were “unsubstantiated”, two were “false” and the other two are still under investigation.

Since the Correctional Services Department conducts investigations into its own officers, can the justices be sure that the complaint was handled in a fair and transparent manner?

Among the eight disciplined services in Hong Kong, only the police force has an independent statutory investigator, namely the Independent Police Complaints Council. When senior counsel Jat Sew-tong was its head, the council was trusted to be fair, open and just.

However, in the wake of the Occupy Central civil disobedience movement, which saw many clashes between protesters and police officers, the council has been ridiculed, with some referring to it as the “Independent Police Protection Council”, for its perceived tendency not to act against officers.

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Given such circumstances, a similar set-up for the Correctional Services Department would not be enough to shore up public confidence.

Rather, an independent statutory body should be established to receive complaints and monitor the work of all the eight disciplinary forces. The Independent Commission Against Corruption, however, should be excluded.

A new and truly independent body with the power to prosecute is the only way to inspire public confidence

The secretariat of the new council could be modelled after those of the Office of the Ombudsman and the Equal Opportunities Commission. Its chairperson and members, to be appointed by the chief executive, should be people of credibility and integrity, drawn from outside the civil service. It must be adequately manned and given ample financial resources so that it can investigate complaints thoroughly. More importantly, it should be empowered to prosecute disciplinary force members where there is evidence against them.

At least 50 people have come forward with their allegations of abuse during their imprisonment. This is not something we can overlook. Torture is intolerable in any society, and it would be sad to see the same type of cases recurring, if nothing were done to right the wrongs.

A new and truly independent body with the power to prosecute is the only way to inspire public confidence in the uniformed forces. The government should address the issue seriously to defend the civic rights of Hong Kong people.

Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator. taipan@albertcheng.hk