Hong Kong police asked to explain why they failed to obtain footage of suspected wetland arson
Clip that emerged in local media shows two potential witnesses at scene, but force says it found no recording of incident in CCTV system
Hong Kong police were pressed on Wednesday to explain why they were unable to get CCTV footage documenting the early stages of a suspected arson case in an ecologically sensitive Yuen Long wetland earlier this month.
Police said they had obtained the CCTV system from the scene but returned it to the owner two days later after finding no footage of the incident.
However a recording obtained by investigative media outlet FactWire, published on Tuesday, showed a boat – moored at what appeared to be Nam Sang Wai ferry pier – going up in flames at around 3am on April 2.
At least two potential witnesses were seen in the clip over the next two hours, but records indicate they did not call police.
A senior police source at directorate rank said the police would handle the matter seriously if any human error on the force’s part was found in the case.
“It is unclear if our men had overlooked the footage when sweeping the system, or if the concerned footage was originally absent in the system,” the source said.
“Our Cyber Security and Technology Crime Bureau is taking a forensic examination of the system to trace the cyber footprint.”
The fire was the fourth to break out in the wooded wetland in weeks.
In the FactWire footage, a mysterious figure emerges from Shan Pui Chung Hau village at about 4.30am, observes the blaze for a minute or so, then leaves. Another person appears on the shore after about an hour, talks on the phone then leaves about three minutes later.
A boat operator arrives at the pier at about 6am and attempts to douse the flames.
Records showed the first police report was made at 6.21am by the person who runs the ferry service. Firefighters arrived at about 6.30am.
“The FactWire footage clearly shows – and this is extremely important for the case – the involvement of at least two witnesses who did not call police. Whether they were involved, we don’t know. But strangely, police said they couldn’t see it in the footage,” lawmaker and Yuen Long district councillor Roy Kwong Chun-yu said on a radio programme on Wednesday, urging police to find the two witnesses.
“The police’s first task is to explain to the public why the media was able to see it, but they were not.”
Kwong said the force’s inability to get leads on the case sent a message that perpetrators could continue to get away with such acts.
“This is worrying to many Hongkongers,” he said.
Police earlier said that nearby CCTV cameras had failed to record the incidents due to “insufficient storage”.
Reporting on the incident to the Yuen Long District Council on Tuesday, the force said it had been unable to find any traces of a fire accelerant at the scene.
“But of course, with such a large area, we cannot make any generalisations,” Yuen Long district police commander Lee Wai-man said.
At about 4pm on Wednesday, about 20 police officers returned to Nam Sang Wai to collect information in the neighbouring villages with images of those who appeared in the FactWire footage.
Police said on Tuesday that the investigation was still under way and that no arrests had been made.
Nam Sang Wai, near the protected Mai Po and Deep Bay Ramsar sites, is home to the second-largest reed bed in Hong Kong and is an important stopover site for migratory birds.
The 70 to 80 hectares (170 to 200 acres) of land have been at the centre of a lengthy land dispute between owners, environmentalists and town planners over whether the area should be developed or conserved, or both.
About 80 per cent of the land is privately owned, the bulk of it by Nam Sang Wai Development, which is jointly controlled by Henderson Land Development and the Fu family, led by Adrian Fu Hau-chak, chief executive of KHI Holdings. The remaining fifth belongs to the government.
Speaking on the same programme as Kwong, Lam Chiu-ying, an adjunct professor at Chinese University’s geography resource management department, said it was not natural for a fire to break out in a wetland and urged police to take the investigation seriously.
While there was a need to discuss better protection for Nam Sang Wai, Lam said, any conservation plan would be futile if fires kept breaking out mysteriously.
“The government needs to take more initiative,” he said.
A police spokesman said police had taken away the CCTV system for inspection on April 2.
“After investigating the contents, no footage of the incident was found. Police returned the system to the [owner] on April 4 and advised him to install a new system as soon as possible,” the spokesman said.
As for the FactWire footage, the spokesman said the force’s Cybersecurity and Technology Crime Investigation Bureau would be called in to help examine the recording.
“Police will continue to actively look for witnesses and informed persons in the case to assist with the investigation,” he added.
On March 12 and 13, two back-to-back hill fires broke out in the area, scorching about 14 hectares of reed beds, abandoned fish ponds and trees. No people or animals were hurt. A separate bushfire took place nearby several days later. On April 2, the fire broke out at the ferry pier.
On Wednesday night, police said the first two suspected arson cases in March and the April pier fire were merged as one case and handed to the New Territories North regional crime unit for investigation, aided by the Cyber Security and Technology Crime Bureau.
Members of the public with information are urged to contact the regional crime unit on 9103 2530.