Hundreds of Vietnamese could be released from Hong Kong detention centres following a Privy Council ruling that 15 boat people should go free because Vietnam was unlikely to accept them back. The 15, all ethnic Chinese, might now claim damages for wrongful imprisonment. Refugee lawyer Pam Baker said 238 more detainees with Taiwanese nationality could be released as a result of the ruling. Another 179 people who had been refused repatriation by Vietnam were also likely to go free. The challenge was the first civil habeas corpus case to go to the Privy Council. The five judges said the length of detention was 'truly shocking'. During the hearing the families claimed the Government had no power to keep them locked up indefinitely just because no country would take them in. The boat people, who hold Taiwanese travel documents, fled to Hong Kong in the late 1980s. They were classed as non-refugees but did not apply for voluntary repatriation, claiming they would be automatically rejected. Vietnam has a rigid policy of refusing to accept back people deemed to be non-nationals. Last night's ruling means Phung Hoan, 59, his wife and three children; Tan Te Lam, 44, his wife and two children; Ly Hue My, 29, her husband and three children; and Luu Tai Phong, 41, are free to live in Hong Kong pending resettlement elsewhere. The families took their fight for freedom to Hong Kong's final court of appeal in London in January following a two-year legal battle with the Government. In its ruling, the Privy Council said once it was apparent Vietnam would not accept the applicants back the Government had no power to hold them. The decision vindicates Mr Justice Brian Keith, who ruled in favour of the boat people in January 1995. His decision was overturned by the Court of Appeal last April. The boat people were given Taiwanese papers because they or their parents were Kuomintang supporters driven out of southern China by the communists. Ms Baker said: 'I would have thought the Taiwanese might take them. Taiwan is on a high right now. There's no reason why they shouldn't extend a friendly hand. Failing that, there's no reason why they should not stay in Hong Kong.'