Torture claimants let down by legal aid

Ignorance and incompetence in Duty Lawyer Service is failing people who claim their lives are at risk in their homeland, say campaigners

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 02 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 02 July, 2013, 5:03am


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Torture claimants are being let down by the government-funded legal service set up to help them, according to a human-rights campaign group and a lawyer who acted for fugitive Edward Snowden.

They accuse the Duty Lawyer Service of a host of failings resulting in delays, frustration and the failure of their clients' applications - with one torture claimant revealing how the scheme has let him down.

Cosmo Beatson, executive director of Vision First, said claimants had told him few lawyers bothered to research political conditions in their clients' country of origin.

And barrister Robert Tibbo, a non-executive director of Vision First, said a four-day training course provided by the Law Society's Academy of Law was not enough.

"Workshops with mock claims exercises are necessary to provide comprehensive training to lawyers, as well as examinations," said Tibbo, who advised Snowden as he hid out in Hong Kong after exposing the use of mass surveillance by US intelligence agencies.

Other claimed shortcomings of the Duty Lawyer Service's Convention Against Torture Scheme include a chronic shortage of interpreters, improper use of court liaison officers, and lawyers discouraging appeals. The convention was established in 2009 and administered by the Law Society and the Bar Association.

Vision First said the lack of interpreters forced claimants to tell their stories in a second or third language, while liaison officers were used to fill in questionnaires that state grounds of claim.

The criticism comes at a time when the city's policy on asylum-seekers is in the spotlight thanks to Snowden, who briefly sought refuge here last month.

The Legislative Council's security panel will today discuss a new, unified mechanism for refugee status determination.

Sri Lankan activist Thajudeen Mohamed Siyan fled his homeland after he became the target of death threats when the political party he worked for lost parliamentary elections in 2004.

"I have been in Hong Kong for nine years," said Thajudeen, one of 500 claimants who have sought help from Vision First. "I have had 14 screening interviews but they were useless. My past lawyer and the interpreters were not really able to help. I don't want to go back [to Sri Lanka] because my political enemies will kill me."

I have been in Hong Kong for nine years. I have had 14 screening interviews but they were useless ... I don't want to go back [to Sri Lanka] because my political enemies will kill me
Sri Lankan activist Thajudeen Mohamed Siyan

The 30-year-old said he worked for the United National Party, canvassing for votes and making campaign speeches.

The day after his party lost the elections, members of the winning United People's Freedom Alliance started hunting him, he said, ransacking his house and, in the presence of the police, threatening to take his life. They shadowed him and sent threatening letters.

The next year he found his way to Hong Kong, filed a torture claim with the Immigration Department and was granted a screening interview last year.

It soon became clear that the lawyer assigned to his case had little idea of his background. Thajudeen said: "I asked him, 'Do you know my country?' But he didn't even know the name of our president. How could he understand my case?"

He was given another lawyer, but then the interpreter turned out to be incapable of fully translating his answers into English.

"One of the interviews lasted 12 hours and I was so hungry that I asked them to stop. It was like another torture," he added.

His petition was rejected after the judge refused to grant his lawyer more time to prepare his case. He then applied in person for leave for a judicial review.

The application was dismissed by a judge who wrongly stated that he had been tailed by the UNP, his own party, he said.

Law Society president Ambrose Lam San-keung defended the scheme. "If lawyers do no research, it is a matter of their own professional conduct and not the system." He disagreed about the need for exams.

Legal-sector lawmaker Dennis Kwok Wing-hang said he would raise the issue in Legco today. "Now the government is revamping the system of refugee protection, it certainly needs to devise new training for lawyers as it wants to extend the legal service to more kinds of [refugee] claims."

Last year, the government gave HK$37.8 million to the torture claimant scheme. More than 350 lawyers work in the service.

Hong Kong has received torture claims since 1992, when the city began applying the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

The Security Bureau said that since 2009, seven torture claims have been substantiated, 3,355 rejected and 3,458 withdrawn. There are 4,065 claims pending.