Token damages for boat people 'derisory'

IT was derisory for the Government to say the 111 Vietnamese boat people locked up for 561 days should get token damages, Mr Justice Chan was told yesterday in the High Court.

In reply to final submissions by the Government, Mr Gerard McCoy, for the boat people, said they had not even been offered compensatory damages.

Urging the judge to award a ''very large amount of money'' to underline the importance of liberty, he said they were talking of massive amounts because of the ''massive'' scenario: 111 people falsely imprisoned for 561 days amounted to 60,000 human days,or the lifetime of 21/2 people.

Substantial damages would teach the Government a lesson, he said, for giving advice such as ''it was arguably all right to lock them up and leave them there''.

He urged the judge to award aggravated damages because of the poor conditions of the camps the plaintiffs were detained in. They were detained in May 1989.

He also cited their uncertainty and fear for their personal safety, their forcible removal to another camp and the use of tear-gas against them.


The insolence of the Government in failing to reply to letters was another aggravating feature, he added.

Counsel recalled the anxiety, stress and hopelessness the witnesses spoke of, with their lives in the hands of a government that would not communicate with them.

This had left them with psychiatric problems.

Mr Justice Chan should go on to consider whether to award exemplary or punitive damages, to mark the court's disapproval of the Government's conduct.


He pointed out the re-arrest of all 111 plaintiffs after they had won a writ of habeas corpus.

Saying they were being re-arrested pending a decision on removal was a specious argument, as Vietnam was not accepting involuntary returnees at that time, added Mr McCoy.


He said the boat people came into Hongkong after being shown a document which gave them an unconditional offer of food, water and boat repairs, and an unequivocal promise that they would be allowed to leave.

The notice was badly drafted, he added.

In written submissions, Mr Keith Oderberg, appearing with Mr McCoy, said if the plaintiffs had made errors and exaggerated their case, it was because the circumstances of their detention did not lend themselves to an objective narrative, and they were unable to keep accurate records of what happened.


They complained of boredom, lack of privacy, being treated like criminals, and the feeling of being cheated and lied to by the Government.

After hearing a brief reply from the Crown, Mr Justice Chan reserved his judgement, indicating it may take two to three months.