SCMP Friday, July 27, 2001

Positions over Man-hon case fail to add up

In a move that makes a mockery of earlier government findings, the Civil Service Bureau last week cleared three immigration officers of any wrongdoing in the highly publicised disappearance of autistic teenager Yu Man-hon.
On August 24 last year, Man-hon, who is 16 but has a mental age of two, ran away from his mother at Yau Ma Tei MTR station and somehow slipped through the Lowu border crossing. Shenzhen officials returned him to Lowu, but SAR immigration officials failed to identify him as a Hong Kong resident and sent him back across the border. He has not been seen since, despite extensive searches on the mainland by police, family and friends.
In exonerating the three immigration officers, the Civil Service Bureau was reportedly convinced there had been no guidelines in place for the officers to follow in dealing with a mentally handicapped person. Sources say the Immigration Department's failure to provide clear guidance was the main argument offered in the three officers' defence at an internal disciplinary hearing.
This is important. Is there a clear set of guidelines for frontline officers to follow in such cases, or not?
In the past, we have been told in no uncertain terms that there were - and are - such guidelines, and that the officers involved in Man-hon's case failed to follow them.
Ambrose Lee Siu-kwong, the Director of Immigration, stated unambiguously on September 21, when releasing the Immigration Department's own inquiry into Man-hon's case, that the department had guidelines outlining how to handle people with mental disabilities. Mr Lee admitted "human errors" were involved in Man-hon's case.
The department's "Rules and Direction for Questioning of Suspects and the Taking of Statements" state that any person suspected or known to be suffering from a mental disorder should be interviewed in the presence of:
(a) A relative, guardian or other person responsible for his care or custody; or,
(b) Someone who has experience of dealing with mentally disordered or handicapped persons but who is not an immigration officer nor employed by the Immigration Department, such as a social worker; or,
(c) Failing either of the above, some other responsible adult who is neither an immigration officer nor employed by the Immigration Department.
These guidelines were re-issued to all immigration staff in February 1999. Nevertheless, the officers who interviewed Man-hon did not follow them. The Government has acknowledged this failure numerous times. The same day that Mr Lee released the Immigration Department's report, then-Chief Secretary for Administration Anson Chan Fang On-sang said: "Some officers did not act appropriately in this case. I want to once again extend our apology to the parents of Man-hon."
The interviewing error, together with two other errors, were cited in a report submitted to the Legislative Council's security panel on October 24. That report, based on separate Immigration Department and police inquiries, noted that the channel supervisor in charge of the immigration counter through which Man-hon dashed failed to report and register the incident. It also noted that although immigration and police officials communicated in an attempt to establish whether Man-hon was a duly reported missing person, they could not ascertain his identity.
The document then states: "The Government has expressed its sincere apologies to Man-hon's family over this most unfortunate incident and the mishandling by the officers concerned."
After all these government acknowledgements of error, it comes as a surprise that the Civil Service Bureau has decided not to penalise the officers in question. But according to a report submitted to the Immigration Department last week, the three serving immigration officers who were involved in Man-hon's case have escaped any action.
The report is confidential. The Secretary for the Civil Service, Joseph Wong Wing-ping, was out of town when it was submitted, and his bureau has refused, on the grounds that the investigation is an internal matter, to reveal anything about the disciplinary hearing.
Mr Wong does not seem to have read the report submitted to the legislature last October, in which Security officials asserted that immigration and police reports would be released to the public - "in the light of public concern over the incident and in the interests of transparency and public accountability".
Eleven months after Man-hon's disappearance, media pressure has started to dissipate. The buzz words of "public concern", "transparency" and "accountability" carry less weight. Even the once-remorseful Immigration Department has apparently adopted a new attitude: responding to the Civil Service Bureau's findings, the department issued a statement saying it would not comment on individual cases.
No one is demanding the heads of the officers at fault. One of them, the channel supervisor, resigned before the disciplinary hearing ever took place. The other three - a senior officer and a chief officer who made the decision to send Man-hon back to Shenzhen, and the officer who interviewed him - are said to have been under tremendous psychological pressure. One of the officers has repeatedly travelled across the border during his free time to try to find Man-hon.
Rather, the bottom line is: do a clear set of guidelines exist for frontline officers to follow that could prevent such a tragedy from recurring? If these do exist, it is imperative that all officers at immigration checkpoints are acquainted with them. If there are no such guidelines, some should be devised urgently.
Members of Legco's security panel should look into this. If there were no clear guidelines for the officers in this case to follow, then the Security Bureau and the Immigration Department have misled Legco.
If the bureau has collected new evidence in this case, then it is dutybound to inform Legco. In any case, Mr Wong should at least clarify why his bureau has come to a conclusion that contradicts those reached by other government bodies.
Bureau officials have said they consulted the Department of Justice before deciding to withhold the report on the disciplinary hearing. Hiding behind legal pretexts will only whet the public's appetite to learn the truth. Every means must be pursued to bring the bureau's hidden and unconvincing report into the light of day.
The chances of locating Man-hon diminish daily. The Government is poised to compensate the Yu family, but Man-hon's mother, Yu Lai Wai-ling, says the family cannot take solace from any amount of restitution.
The Civil Service Bureau owes Man-hon, his parents and the public an explanation over why it believes no one should be held responsible for this shameful blunder.
Albert Cheng King-hon ( ) is a broadcaster and publisher.