Hong Kong’s leader announced on Thursday that police would stop holding anti-government protesters at a controversial facility where detainees have alleged abuse in custody.
Police have denied the accusations, but the treatment of protesters at the San Uk Ling Holding Centre, in Sheung Shui, has sparked widespread concern. Activists gathered at Edinburgh Place on Friday evening to express their support for people who were held there.
Where is San Uk Ling Holding Centre and why it was built?
The detention centre was set up in 1979 in Man Kam To, roughly 1.5km from the Shenzhen-Hong Kong border. Back then it was intended to hold stowaways from mainland China, before they were sent back.
The centre has since become desolate and mainly houses illegal immigrants. In 2005, it held a number of militant South Korean farmers arrested during clashes with police officers during a World Trade Organisation conference.
When and why did police detain the arrested protesters at San Uk Ling?
A police insider said arrested protesters were generally held at police stations when the unrest began in early June. But as the number of arrests grew and protesters constantly besieged police stations to support detainees, the force turned to San Uk Ling as a temporary alternative.
The first group of protesters sent there were among 148 arrested on August 5, when a citywide strike turned violent and crippled Hong Kong, affecting major transport systems and leading to the cancellation of more than 200 flights. Protesters arrested in three other operations, including clearances in Causeway Bay and Tsim Sha Tsui on August 11 and Prince Edward on August 31, were also sent there.
“We want to centralise the arrestees for easy management after making a mass arrest. Also, we have to take them away from the heat of war zones. This is to protect our police stations and the safety of suspects,” the source said, adding that at peak times the force had as many as 75 arrestees in the centre.
What did the detainees say?
A report released by NGO Amnesty International on September 20 accused police of resorting to “retaliatory violence” at San Uk Ling by torturing or mistreating suspects.
That was based on interviews with 21 people arrested but later released, who said officers punched or severely beat them, while they put up no resistance. Detainees also accused police of preventing them from calling a lawyer, for lack of a phone. Others said they had to wait 12 hours before seeing a legal representative.
There were also unverified rumours that arrestees were raped and sexually assaulted by officers.
How did the authorities and police rebut the accusations?
Chief Superintendent John Tse Chun-chung from the Police Public Relations Branch said on Friday the centre was a standard detention facility, used in line with police regulations.
He said all the allegations were “unnamed”, “unverified” and “untrue”. He said the force had only received two complaints related to San Uk Ling, neither of them related to sexual violence.
“We do not accept such anonymous accusations. It’s very unfair for anyone to make an accusation without coming forward,” Tse said. “We appeal to anyone who feels aggrieved by police to make a report to us in person.”
He said the centre’s remoteness meant it took a while to arrange medical or legal help.
Kong Wing-cheung, a senior superintendent from the same branch, said earlier that he believed some of the detainees’ injuries were caused while they were being arrested, before they were sent to the centre.
Lo Su-vui, a Hospital Authority executive overseeing its facilities in the eastern New Territories, said on August 28 that North District Hospital received 30 patients from the centre between August 12 and 13 but none of the patients said they had been raped or sexually assaulted.
Where will the arrested protesters be held in future?
According to Tse, the force had not used the centre to hold arrested protesters since September 2, and would in future use detention centres in police stations across the city in case of mass arrests. But he stressed that did not mean the force had erred in using San Uk Ling.
“The decision [to stop using the centre] has nothing to do with the groundless claims accusing the police of misconduct like excessive use of force and sexual harassment,” Tse said. “The reason is to avoid any further public speculation and unnecessary remarks accusing the police.”