Saturday, November 12, 2011

scmp: Women 'used as bait' in sex probe

Women 'used as bait' in sex probe

Police accused of being reckless for not publicising attacks on victims who had been drinking in Lan Kwai Fong until after 'sexual predator' was arrested

Police have been accused of using women as bait after a serial sex attacker labelled a "dangerous sexual predator" was jailed for 5-1/2 years.

Billy Chan Ho-leung pleaded guilty to five charges of indecent assault last December and January.

The labourer targeted women in bars in Lan Kwai Fong, followed them when they left alone and assaulted them in dimly lit places as they walked home.

But police did not release any details of the assaults, despite appeals to do so by one of his victims, until after his arrest in June.

The senior police officer who headed the investigation has defended the move as a professional judgment call. "I have no regrets whatsoever about the way the case was handled. It was proven to be the correct way because we got the guy convicted," said Assistant district commander for Central district Kenneth Pemberton.

But legislator Emily Lau Wai-hing and Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor said the police had threatened public safety by not publicising the attacks.

The revelation of the case comes after police were criticised for delaying the release of information about a series of stabbings in Tseung Kwan O in early October and a series of indecent exposure cases in Kwun Tong on October 18 and 19.

Chan was jailed on November 4 for the five attacks.

The District Court heard Chan had committed the offences while on probation for indecent assault and that one of his victims had been assaulted twice.

Judge Stephen Geiser rejected a defence claim that Chan had mental problems, saying psychiatric reports indicated he was a dangerous sexual predator.

One victim told the Sunday Morning Post Chan attacked her in a lane off High Street, Sheung Wan, as she walked home early on January 1 after celebrating the New Year with friends.

She had asked police to warn other women by publicising the attack.

"I remember going to the police in January and asking them to warn women in the area," said the woman, an expatriate who is now thinking of leaving Hong Kong because of the trauma of her ordeal.

"They told me they didn't want to create a panic or tip off the attacker, fearing that he might flee Hong Kong.

"I was sure they were doing a good job trying to find him, but I felt I needed to try to warn women about this. I knew I would feel terrible if the same thing happened to another woman and I had kept quiet."

The woman was so worried he would strike again that in March she contacted the Sunday Morning Post, which published her story.

At the time, police said there was no evidence a serial attacker was involved and said no other sex attack had been reported in the vicinity either before or after she was attacked. But when the man was caught on June 8, and matched with DNA from blood taken from the victim's coat, it emerged he had indecently assaulted another woman in December in Po Hing Fong, Sheung Wan, about a kilometre from the later attack.

Only when the man was in custody did police issue a press release asking for other victims to come forward.

Legislator Emily Lau said the police had been wrong not to warn the public at the time of the assaults.

"If there is somebody like that lurking around, the public should know," she said. "It is really reprehensible of the police not to inform the public and I definitely condemn them."

Lau plans to initiate a Legco debate on press freedom on November 23, when she will mention the police practice of not informing the media and the public in such cases.

She said the issue was also due to be discussed by the Legislative Council's security panel on November 25.

Law Yuk-kai, director of Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor, said the police had shown "a totally misplaced priority".

"It means they are using women as prey, and that is irresponsible," Law said.

"To bring someone to justice is one police priority, but preventing [more] people falling prey is even more important and that is why it is important for police to release information."

Law said he hoped to meet police to offer help on updating what he called was the "obsolete and outdated practices" on the release of information.

"The police really need to revise their guidelines and draft them with public consultation or else they will not address the people's security needs and the need of the public and the media to know," he said.

"The police cannot be stationed on every corner to take care of everyone. People have to fend for themselves and information is power. It is wrong to say law and order is only a matter for the police. It is important they release this information as soon as possible. In withholding information, they are doing the public a disservice."

Hong Kong Police would not comment on the case but said certain factors - the public's right to know and operational strategies such as covert operations, and privacy of individuals - were considered before information was released in some cases, including rape or kidnapping.

"Nevertheless, the police will release related information to the public according to the special requirement of particular cases. When disseminating information, the police will take into consideration the public's right to know and comply strictly with the relevant ordinances and the requirements of the Code on Access to Information."

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