The chief prosecutor has broken his silence to defend the government's refusal to release much of a report into the 2012 Lamma ferry tragedy, saying full disclosure may pose a "serious risk" to criminal justice.
The 430-page report could be made public after all criminal proceedings had ended, Director of Public Prosecutions Keith Yeung Kar-hung told lawmakers. "It is not the case that the report can never be disclosed," he said. "It is just a matter of timing."
Yeung gave his first public explanation for the Department of Justice's move to condense the report's 430 pages and 399 appendices into a 30-page summary for release last week. It followed a flurry of calls for transparency over the October 1, 2012, crash between two passenger vessels off Lamma that claimed 39 lives.
The public prosecutions director spoke at a meeting of the Legislative Council economic development panel on the report, a day after retired High Court judge William Waung Sik-ying asked the government for a full disclosure, citing "public interest".
Waung also floated the possibility of bereaved families seeking legal redress, which legal scholars said might force the government to hand the report to either the families or their legal representatives.
Yeung said his decision was "purely legally based", not taking into account possible civil lawsuits against the government as a result of the full release.
Grilled by lawmakers, he declined to say if the move did the families an injustice, as their right to seek redress would expire in September 2015 under local laws.
Secretary for Justice Rimsky Yuen Kwok-keung would meet all families on May 15, Yeung said.
Secretary for Housing and Transport Professor Anthony Cheung Bing-leung, who was also at the meeting, said he would discuss with Yuen the possibility of letting families read the report with a non-disclosure undertaking.
Yeung said the report was unlikely to be submitted to the courts as evidence because of stringent rules on admitting evidence. Therefore, it would be unfair to the trial if the jury could view what defendants had said in the report, he noted.
"I do not advise a full disclosure at this stage or else it poses a serious risk to any future criminal procedures," he said.
Yeung further cited Malaysian tycoon Lee Ming Tee, whose trial almost collapsed as two courts found he had been denied a fair trial by the publication of an excerpt of a government investigation report. Lee was eventually jailed for a year in 2004 for his role in inflating the true value of the Allied Group.
Yeung said the Court of Final Appeal let the prosecution proceed with the case - but criticised the handling of the report.
He cited the top court's judgment: "The notion that this was in aid of governmental transparency does not bear examination. Such transparency is laudable, but no one could reasonably suggest that it should be pursued at the risk of prejudicing a person's criminal trial on a serious charge. Publication could in any event have taken place after the trial."
The ferry report, compiled by the Transport and Housing Bureau, accuses 17 marine officials up to directorate level of misconduct. It found "suspected criminality" linked to the disaster and has been transferred to police for further investigation.