A Hong Kong NGO has urged the government to respect the rights of people in custody as the government is due to submit a report to the United Nations by the end of March.

The Society for Community Organisation will make a submission to the Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Bureau about conditions inside Hong Kong’s prisons.

The NGO called on the Bureau to review whether the current system provided adequate human rights protection to people held in custody, and called on the government to set up independent monitoring mechanisms to protect those in custody.

soco prisoners rights

The Bureau is conducting a public consultation on topics to be included in the government’s fourth report to the United Nations Human Rights Committee. The report relates to the implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and covers civil and political rights from 2011 to 2018.

The government should submit its report to the UN by the end of March.

According to SoCO Community Organiser Annie Lin, the Correctional Services Department’s Complaints Investigation Unit, the number of cases rose to 120 in 2016, from 94 cases in 2014. However, the number of cases that were substantiated remained low.

From 2012-16, the unit investigated 579 cases, but only three were substantiated. No cases were substantiated out of 120 cases investigated in 2016.

The United Nations.
The United Nations. Photo: UN.

According to SoCO, the lack of an independent mechanism to investigate complaints results in a low number of substantiated cases and in prisoners being reluctant to complain, it said, calling the number of complaints received by the unit only the “tip of the iceberg.”

The NGO said many prisoners are afraid to complain as prisons are “enclosed systems” under the full control of the CSD.

“The fear of retribution is widespread and many have reported of being placed in solitary confinement, reported for a disciplinary offences, being beaten by either CSD staff or other inmates for having complained.”

‘Solitary confinement’

It also called for the department to greatly reduce the use of solitary confinement, saying that the practice is still widely used despite the rules governing it being vague and under-regulated.

At a press conference held by the NGO, former detainee Wong Ting-hin said that he was put in solitary confinement by an officer for “speaking loudly” to staff after he complained about the behaviour of another inmate.

soco prisoners rights
Wong Ting-hin. Photo: Screenshot/Apple Daily.

He said that he lost his privileges including watching TV, exercising, and going out for walks.

“Looking at the four walls, and thinking about my family, thinking about unhappy things. Besides not being able to sleep, my mood became unstable.”

The UN Human Rights Committee has said that solitary confinement is a harsh penalty with serious psychological consequences and use other than in exceptional circumstances and for limited periods is inconsistent the ICCPR and may amount to torture.

In a response to Apple Daily, the Correctional Services Department said that, if detainees break the rules, they can be held for no longer than 28 days in separate confinement after a disciplinary hearing. They may also be separated from other detainees – for safety reasons – for no longer than 72 hours, which may be extended for up to a month.

The department said it carefully considers each case according to the law to ensure that no detainees are inappropriately held in insolation or held for a prolonged period.

Catherine is a Canadian journalist and photographer who lived in Beijing for almost two years, working in TV and online media. Aside from Hong Kong and mainland affairs, she is also interested in urban spaces, art and feminism. She holds a BA in Literature and Art History from the University of British Columbia.