Opening up to scrutiny

TWENTY years ago, the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) was given unparalleled powers to seize, detain, arrest and obtain information to crack down on graft. So great were its powers that they exceeded even those of the police in some instances. Anyone who lived through the 70s will know that such powers were vital if the body was to rid the territory of the scourge which had cut so deeply through the fabric of society.

However, times change and today those powers are considered out of step with the Hong Kong of the 90s. Powers once deemed necessary are now viewed with suspicion and unfashionable against heightened concerns for human rights.

The announcement of a review body to examine the authority of the ICAC will therefore be welcomed by those concerned about the abuse of power. Ironically, such a body would not have been set up if the ICAC had not been so secretive about the dismissal ofone of its top officers, Alex Tsui Ka-kit. After all, until the Tsui case, repeated calls to review the powers of the ICAC had largely been ignored.

Headed by Dr Helmut Sohmen, the review body will have a difficult balancing act to perform. It must ensure that the ICAC has sufficient powers to fight graft, while being more accountable to public scrutiny. Go too far in stripping the ICAC of its powers and it sends the wrong signal to those it is meant to combat. Do too little and it leaves the way open to potential abuse of powers and secrecy.

The review body will have a tough task in weighing the needs of the ICAC and the expectations of the public in deciding whether its draconian powers are still justified. However, after 20 years, it is a process that is long overdue.