Hong Kong national security law: suspects could be held indefinitely in special detention facilities

Jun 23, 2020

Suspects arrested under Hong Kong’s national security law may be detained in special holding centres for as long as authorities see fit, according to a report in the South China Morning Post.

Although Beijing has yet to specify the penalties for offenders, it has promised to uphold presumption of innocence and other rights safeguards.
The detention facilities could function similar to the former “white house” the British colonial government used during the last century to hold people suspected of political crimes. It was operated by Royal Hong Kong Police Force’s Special Branch, an arm that worked in conjunction with Britain’s MI6 security service in the city, before being disbanded in 1995.

According to an outline of the new legislation reported by state media at the weekend, the Hong Kong government will set up a commission to safeguard national security chaired by the city’s leader and which will include an adviser appointed by Beijing.
Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor has agreed with the need for the commission, as well as for new arms in the police force and the Department of Justice to handle cases.
Security minister John Lee Ka-chiu revealed earlier this month Police Commissioner Chris Tang Ping-keung would be in charge of the force’s new unit, which would have intelligence gathering, investigation and training capabilities.

Several sources close to the central government confirmed the city was looking into establishing separate facilities for detention, interrogation and investigation when needed, instead of holding suspects in police stations after being arrested.

But they stopped short of providing details on the possible facilities’ size, location or number. It remained unclear who might have authority over them.

One insider said the centres could operate in a manner similar to the “white house”, with possible extended detention times.

“Depending on the new law requirement, the subjects will be detained for a certain period of time as the authority sees fits for legitimate processing, before putting the case to the designated law courts,” said another source familiar with the matter.

He also cited Singapore’s Internal Security Act that allows for indefinite preventive detention without trial.

Hong Kong police currently hold suspects usually for no longer than 48 hours before they are released or brought before a magistrate.

The new law targets the 'crimes' of secession or subversion of state power, along with terrorist activities and collusion with foreign and external forces to endanger national security, according to a draft released by state media on Saturday after the National People’s Congress Standing Committee ended a three-day meeting deliberating on laws.

Xinhua made plain how Beijing had the final say over the law’s implementation but assured common law principles such as presumption of innocence and other human rights safeguards will be preserved.

The “white house”, officially known as the Victoria Road Detention Centre, has a dark history. It was built in the early 1950s as a mess for the Royal Engineers Regiment on a disused gun emplacement that was part of the Jubilee Battery built between 1936 and 1939.
Bereft of nameplates or signposts and unmarked on road maps, the centre’s buildings were at the junction of Victoria Road and Mount Davis Road, hidden behind dense greenery and protected by rows of barbed wire.
Later in the 1950s, at the height of cross-strait tensions between Beijing and Taipei, the Special Branch took over the facility and held Kuomintang spies from Taiwan caught smuggling explosives to mainland China.

During the anti-colonial riots of 1967, which saw 15 bomb attacks carried out and 51 people killed, the same police unit used it to hold 52 so-called instigators under emergency regulations designed to crush morale among leftists and drive leaders of the movement underground.
Those prisoners nicknamed it “the zoo”, a reference to treatment they viewed as inhumane. In addition to being detained without due process, many were kept in solitary confinement.
Among those held were famous actors Fu Qi and She Wei, as well as Wong Kin-lap, who was headmaster of pro-Beijing Hon Wah College at the time
From 1990 the centre was used as a police witness protection unit. Until 2018, the site was unoccupied and is now the campus of University of Chicago in Hong Kong.

- South China Morning Post
Photo: Hong Kong's infamous '"White House'