NOT content with the sweeping new powers they acquired under the Organised and Serious Crime Ordinance earlier this year, the police now have another target in sight. They want to curtail the right to silence, so making it easier to convict criminals, by allowing the courts to draw adverse inferences about the guilt of those who refuse to explain their actions. The idea is not new. Justice Macdougall caused a furore by proposing it on the eve of his retirement last March. In Britain such a change has been made, under the intensely controversial Criminal Justice Act. But, only now have the police shown any interest in Hong Kong following suit, by extolling its benefits in a submission to the Security Branch. Whether such a proposal is feasible must be open to doubt. Legislators would be highly unlikely to agree to pass statutory changes which would be needed and any curtailment of the right to silence might be construed as contrary to the Bill of Rights. This stipulates that anyone charged with a criminal offence is presumed innocent until proven guilty and cannot be forced to confess guilt or testify against himself. Even were it feasible, no compelling evidence has been advanced to justify a change which would have such huge implications for civil liberties in the run-up to 1997. It is not as if the police are short of powers. Under the Organised and Serious Crime Ordinance they can already apply for a court order requiring a person to answer questions, or be jailed if he refuses. But this strictly limited exception to the right to silence, which is subject to stringent safeguards, is very different from a more general curtailment. The situation in Britain is not comparable. In Britain, numerous other protections exist. Wide-ranging Codes of Practice stipulate how suspects should be treated at all times, including their right to legal representation. Interviews must be tape-recorded, an area in which Hong Kong is dragging its feet over whether to follow suit. If the police seriously want to curtail the right to silence, they should first put their own house in order and press for similar protections to be introduced to the territory. Better still would be to abandon their controversial proposal. In the run-up to the handover, the emphasis should be on promoting civil liberties rather than restricting them. What is considered appropriate in Britain is not necessarily right for a territory about to revert to Chinese rule.