Passage of crime bill in balance

GOVERNMENT officials were last night frantically lobbying legislators to dump three contentious amendments which threaten the passage today of the Organised and Serious Crimes Bill.

It is understood independents and the Liberal Party were being pressured to ignore the changes and push through the draft legislation.

Key independent Emily Lau Wai-hing last night said she was still undecided about the amendments.

Officials are worried a Democratic Party proposal might ruin a two-year campaign to bolster the police fight against organised crime.

Senior officials said the changes - including a bid to allow those involved in one-off offences to escape the bill's reach - would 'fatally weaken' the law.

'We have enough safeguards in this bill to prevent the willful and capricious misuse of the law,' said a top administration figure.

'If we lose this, the whole exercise will not even be worthwhile.' In a leaked copy of a speech to be delivered to the Legislative Council, Secretary for Security Alastair Asprey says the party's proposals deserve to be attacked.

'Their effect would be to emasculate the bill,' Mr Asprey says.

'Police would not have the powers they need to tackle organised and serious crime effectively, a course of action which has the full support of the community and which has been consistently urged by this council.' When the second reading debate begins this afternoon, more than 70 amendments, agreed to at the committee stage, will be incorporated into the legislation in a reflection of the contentiousness of the sweeping package of reforms.

They include establishing an appeals mechanism for witness protection, placing limits on the monetary threshold for confiscating assets, and changing the criteria under which people can be charged for publicising an organised crime investigation.

There will also be an amendment to significantly increase the penalties for loansharking.

The bill was introduced in July 1992. It will give police the power to compel witnesses to answer questions and provide information, and allow the prosecution to take into account a broader background profile of the offender prior to sentencing.

To placate legislators' fears, special powers of investigation can only be invoked by police on application to the Attorney-General and with the approval of a High Court judge.

Police have also agreed to be subject to a code of conduct.

However, the Democratic Party is worried the law will be misused beyond 1997 as a tool to persecute political activists.

In a rousing letter urging legislators to back his platform, party chairman Martin Lee Chu-ming said the bill 'imposes definite and serious restrictions upon the basic freedoms of Hong Kong people'.

Mr Lee's changes intend to limit the definition of 'organised crime' so a one-off offence - with substantial planning and the involvement of two or more persons - is put outside the law's application.

There is also a proposal to not allow the law to be directed against people of a 'particular description'. The final amendment focuses on police prejudicing investigations.