Governor orders JPs to conduct raid probe

TWO justices of the peace have been commissioned by Governor Chris Patten to conduct an independent inquiry into last week's tear-gassing of 1,500 Vietnamese boat people in a military-style operation which left hundreds of people injured.

The inquiry, which has been given wide-ranging terms of reference, follows admissions by the Government on Wednesday that it had not revealed the full facts about the number of injuries or the amount of tear-gas used at the Whitehead detention centre.

Evidence that includes police videos, used tear-gas canisters and the weapons seized in a search of the camp have been secured under orders from the Attorney-General Jeremy Mathews.

Professor David Todd and Executive Councillor Andrew Li Kwok-nang have until July 10 to report to Mr Patten on: The use of force in the operation; The injuries alleged to have been sustained by some of the Vietnamese inmates; The release of information concerning the operation; To advise whether any changes or improvements should be made in the conduct of such operations.

At the time of the incident, which involved the transfer of 1,500 people from the Whitehead detention centre to High Island detention centre, the Correctional Services Department (CSD) said only one woman had been injured and taken to hospital and about 250 tear-gas canisters were fired.

On Wednesday, the acting Secretary for Security, Ken Woodhouse, said more than 200 people sought medical treatment from the British Red Cross clinic at High Island on the day of the operation and in subsequent days.

Mr Woodhouse also said that a total of 557 tear-gas canisters were discharged and a ''pepper fog'' machine used to produce a flow of gas.

Professor Todd said he was approached yesterday morning to lead the inquiry but had not been advised what support staff he would be given or from where he would operate.

''I have not had time to find much out . . . I don't know if there will be any public hearings,'' he said.

It is understood, the inquiry will be offered the services of staff from the Government Secretariat Administrative Office.

Secretary for Security Alistair Asprey, who ordered the operation, and CSD Commissioner Eric McCosh will be among the first to be interviewed.

Mr McCosh has repeatedly defended the use of 560 CSD staff and 700 police using tear-gas to remove people from Section 7 at Whitehead.

They attended a meeting yesterday with Mr Patten, Mr Mathews, Chief Secretary Anson Chan Fang On-sang, Mr Woodhouse and refugees co-ordinator Brian Bresnihan.

Mr Bresnihan said he was certain the Government would look at the recommendations from the justices of the peace and was committed to action.

Meanwhile, plans for a similar operation at Whitehead have been put on hold pending the findings of the inquiry.

Vietnamese inmates of Section 8 at Whitehead are known to have constructed barricades to keep CSD officers out of their area and have contingency plans to repel raiders.

Section 8 is next to Section 7 and many of the people in that section also fell victim to the effects of tear-gas shells which either fell or were fired into their compound.

Six of the Section 7 inmates have claimed they were assaulted in the raid.

Sources within High Island said up to 100 people had now alleged they were assaulted by either CSD or police officers during the transfer.

Last night, the Government said it had been advised by the British Red Cross at High Island detention centre that the number of Vietnamese treated in the clinic since the operation on Thursday had been overstated.

It is understood that the number of consultations were counted rather than the number of individuals seeking medical help. It is expected that the total number of people concerned will involve about 200 and that final figures will be released today.

The issue of the Whitehead raid has also been placed on the agenda for Tuesday's meeting of the Security Panel.

Panel member Christine Loh Kung-wai plans to visit High Island tomorrow to meet people involved in the transfer from Whitehead.

She said she hoped to talk with a cross section of the group including those in the isolation section of the camp. About 300 of the former Section 7 inmates are understood to be in the isolation section.

Ms Loh will be accompanied by other legislators and said she would present her findings at the Tuesday meeting.