THOUSANDS of prisoners will be incarcerated in Hong Kong jails after the territory is handed back to China in 1997, their fate unknown because no provisions have been made to safeguard their future.
Out of a prison population of 13,227, only 77 inmates are eligible to be repatriated before the handover. And the only way they can be transferred is on humanitarian grounds or if they pay for it themselves once they have cut through government red tape.
With no income and what savings they had spent on legal fees, it is likely that only a handful will be repatriated before 1 July 1997. After the handover the scheme will be dropped. The outlook is even worse for the remaining 13,150 prisoners who do not qualify for a transfer.
According to one prison guard the only form of repatriation after the handover will be to northern China where the worst offenders will be executed. There are added fears that human rights abuse in Hong Kong jails will soar under Chinese rule.
There are three Britons whose sentences surpass the handover. With only 19 months left before the colony reverts to Chinese rule, it is unlikely that all three will be successfully repatriated to British prisons.
Photographer Brian Rappaport was caught smuggling 200 grams of cocaine into Hong Kong last Christmas and was given a seven-and-a-half year sentence in June. With good behaviour, he can expect to serve two thirds of this, keeping him in prison until the year 2000 at the earliest.
The same applies to textile buyer Michael Margolis. He was arrested at Kai Tak Airport, Hong Kong, after 11.6 kilograms of heroin, worth more than £1 million, was found in a microwave oven he was carrying. He was given a 12-year prison sentence at the end of 1992.
Tycoon Ronald Milhench is the only one to have applied for repatriation. He was convicted of possession of arms and ammunition and holding a false passport and is expected to be released by the end of 1998 at the earliest.
Under the Council of Europe Convention of the Transfer of Sentenced Prisoners, inmates requesting repatriation on humanitarian grounds must receive written permission from the Security Branch and Correctional Services Department (CSD) in Hong Kong and the relevant authorities from their home country.
The majority of European countries, including the UK as well as the US and Canada, come under the convention. The application procedure can take years and with less than two years left before the handover, time is running out for those seeking a transfer.
If an application is granted on humanitarian grounds, the receiving country pays for the cost of the repatriation.
Alternatively, eligible prisoners can offer to pay for all administration costs and the fee to fly out four guards, first class, to escort the prisoner back to a prison in his home country – a cost believed to be well in excess of HK$250,000 (£20,000). However, this only happens in extreme cases.
Thailand is the only other country that has transfer of prisoner arrangements with Hong Kong under a bilateral agreement between the UK and Thai governments. This will also be scrapped after the hand-over.
Hong Kong's prison population currently stands at 13,227 with 77 coming from countries (including Thailand) and dependent territories that are parties to the convention.
But the future looks even worse for the remaining 13,150 prisoners. Of that figure, more than 783 inmates come from countries that have no repatriation arrangement with Hong Kong – prisoners from Australia, New Zealand, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, the Philippines, Vietnam, Korea, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Nepal, Nigeria and Ghana. The remaining 12,367 inmates are mainland Chinese and Hong Kong Chinese.
The CSD, the department in charge of running Hong Kong's prisons, has said there will be no changes to the way prisoners are treated because of two safeguards: the Joint Declaration, signed by Margaret Thatcher and Deng Xiaoping in 1984 and the Basic Law.
However, a legal expert and prison guard say there are serious questions as to how the Chinese will adhere to both.
One prison officer, who is planning to leave Hong Kong before 1997, believes such guarantees will become meaningless as soon as China takes control of the territory.
“There is talk that the only repatriation will be to northern China and those prisoners will end up in the ground. I do not know if this will apply to British prisoners,” the officer said.
“Prison in China is very different, it is inhumane,” the officer added. “Inmates are beaten frequently by the guards and I cannot see them changing their ways when they come to Hong Kong.
“There are prisoners here whose crimes warrant execution in China – they are the ones who I fear for and they are the ones who will be treated badly. If the prisons become run by the Chinese then cases of human rights abuse will undoubtedly increase.”
Dr Nihal Jayawickrama, the former Attorney General for Sri Lanka and now a senior law lecturer at Hong Kong University, believes the death penalty will be brought back to Hong Kong after the handover.
“Come 1 July 1997, the new Chief Executive of Hong Kong will be accountable to the Chinese government and therefore you would expect prisons to be run as they are in China. With that in mind, it does not paint a bright picture of the future,” he said.
“The death penalty was abolished in Hong Kong because of the attitude of successive British governments. However, I think this will be altered because those constraints will not apply after the handover. I think people are being unrealistic to think the Joint Declaration and the Basic Law will protect everyone. Both will have no value once Hong Kong becomes accountable to China.”
The Prisoners' Friends' Association has expressed its concern that the conditions of Hong Kong jails will worsen after the handover and there are added fears that the death penalty will be brought back to the territory.
“There is much anxiety within the CSD and that concerns me,” said association chair Jane Crawley. “We are seeing a high number of CSD officers leaving Hong Kong because they are worried about the future.
“In the past, there have been agreements allowing the safe return of prisoners to their home countries. The chances of this happening in the run-up to 1997 are extremely slim and China has made it clear that it will be disbanding such European methods after the hand-over.
“What worries me more is that there is a huge number of prisoners who have been given indeterminate sentences. This is an additional torture not knowing whether you are going to get out or not.
“At the moment, prisoners can apply to the Governor to be given determinate sentences but what will happen when he [Chris Patten] leaves and is replaced by a Chief Executive accountable to China?”
In the past year, 419 officers have left the prison service, justifying claims that officers are worried about the future.
A spokesman for the Security Branch admitted no provisions to extend the Convention on the Transfer of Sentenced Prisoners had been made beyond 1997. “We are now discussing, with the Chinese side of the Joint Liaison Group, continuing arrangements for the transfer of sentenced persons between Hong Kong and other territories beyond this date,” the spokesman said.
“We cannot, at this stage, comment on what specific arrangements will apply beyond 30 June 1997.”
The spokesman also stressed that there would be no repatriation available for prisoners who come from non-qualifying countries after that time.
“Australia does not come under the convention, and therefore Australian prisoners cannot apply for repatriation now and will not after the handover,” he said.
Fung Kin-hung, of the Prison Officer's Association, said members were concerned about the future.
“We are being kept in the dark by the Hong Kong government and the Chinese, we cannot get any information on what will happen to our prisons after 1997.
“Because of this uncertainty, a lot of senior prison guards have decided to leave the service. Losing that kind of experience does not bode too well for the future.”
A spokesman for Government House said: “Naturally, we are concerned, this is why we are diligently taking up the matter with the Chinese at the Joint Liaison Group discussions.”
Briton Ronald Milhench may be one of the few prisoners fortunate enough to have enough money to pay for his own repatriation, but there is no guarantee the CSD, Security Branch and the Home Office and Foreign Office in London will approve his request.
Milhench, described in court as “an overgrown schoolboy, pretending to be James Bond”, was caught with the loaded revolver and false passport held in his Hong Kong bank safe
He said the conditions of Hong Kong prisons were 100 years behind those in Europe and he believes that they will worsen after 1997.
“I am extremely concerned about China's human rights record and have applied for a transfer to the UK to avoid dying in China,” he said through his solicitor Mike Crawford.
He referred to Nien Cheng's book Life and Death in Shanghai, an autobiography that recounts how Cheng was accused of being a British spy and locked up in solitary confinement for six-and-a-half years during China's Cultural Revolution.
She was released in 1972 to face further years of intimidation and to learn her daughter had been beaten to death by over-zealous Red Guards.
Milhench stressed that the same people ultimately responsible for Cheng's imprisonment and the death of her daughter are “alive and in power today”.
“That is why I am concerned about serving the remainder of my sentence in a Hong Kong prison under Chinese rule after the handover,” he said.