Police role criticised after Hong Kong drug sentences

Jail ... the three young Australians were sentenced for drug trafficking yesterday.. ABC News Online', 'A van carrying one of the Australian defendants arrives at the High Court in Hong Kong

MP3 Audio Interview with F.P.S.S Advocate Kay Danes

The sentencing of three young Australians in Hong Kong has raised more questions about the role of Australian police in alerting foreign authorities to drug smuggling plots involving Australians.

The trio, who were convicted of heroin smuggling in Hong Kong, have each been sentenced to at least a decade in prison and now have 28 days in which to lodge an appeal.

Two of the traffickers were under the age of 18 when they were arrested in a Hong Kong hotel room in April last year in possession of 700 grams of heroin.

Criticism has been levelled at the New South Wales and Australian Federal Police (AFP) for alerting local authorities to the heroin plot instead of waiting to arrest the Australians once they returned home.

Rachel Ann Diaz, a former trainee hairdresser from Sydney, was only 17-years-old when she agreed to smuggle heroin from Hong Kong to Australia.

In April last year, she was arrested in a Hong Kong hotel room, along with a 15-year-old and 21-year-old Hutchinson Tran, after police found 114 packages of heroin stuffed into condoms and the fingers of rubber gloves.

Diaz and the 15-year-old were to swallow them before boarding the flight back to Sydney.

In their court case, the defence team argued they were young, naive and vulnerable to an Asian crime syndicate promising quick money and an all expenses paid trip to Hong Kong.

But the judge, Justice Peter Longley, said that was no excuse for such a serious crime, and sentenced Diaz to 10 years and eight months, Tran to 13 years, and the younger defendant to to nine years in prison.

Teresa Gambaro, parliamentary secretary for the Minister for Foreign Affairs, says it is a tragic case.

"These young people are in the prime of their life, and they will be spending it in jail," she said.

She says an international prisoner transfer agreement is still being finalised with Hong Kong.

For now though, lawyers for the drug smugglers can lodge an appeal.

"Under Hong Kong law, defendants have 28 days to appeal their sentence, so there is an appeals process that they can go through, and at this stage I'm not sure if they're going to take that appeal process," she said.

"That's entirely up to them and their legal team."

At the time of the arrest, Australian police had been involved in a joint investigation with Hong Kong police.

The AFP's drugs team, the New South Wales police South East Asian crime squad and Hong Kong's police narcotics bureau were working together in the exchange of information to investigate a drugs syndicate when the Australians were arrested.

Kay Danes is with the Foreign Prisoner Support Service. She says with the information they had, Australian police could and should have acted sooner to protect the three young Australians.

"I would have thought that, had it been possible, they could have allowed them to come back to Australia, under surveillance, and then investigated where they were actually going to make the delivery," she said, "and then arrest them, along with the other people that they were going to be making the delivery to."

She concedes that allowing the drug mules to swallow the condoms full of heroin, with the possibility that they could break, was risky.

"But 20 years in an Asian jail - it's still a gruesome outcome - they're still not guaranteed to survive a 20-year jail term," she said.

A spokesman for the Australian Federal Police said the agency did not have a direct role in the case and referred The World Today to the New South Wales police but no one there would comment.

There are another 17 Australians facing serious charges in Hong Kong.

Foreign Prisoners Support Service

Australia and Hong Kong sign prisoner transfer agreement

Australia and Hong Kong have signed a bilateral treaty for the international transfer of prisoners between both countries, the Minister for Justice and Customs, Senator Chris Ellison, said today.

The International Transfer of Prisoners treaty with Hong Kong underlines Australia’s solid commitment to regional law enforcement cooperation and will allow prisoners to serve out their sentences in their home country, Senator Ellison said.

“Australia’s International Transfer of Prisoners scheme currently covers 58 jurisdictions, now including Hong Kong,” he said.

Hong Kong is the second regional jurisdiction with which Australia has concluded a bilateral agreement for the transfer of prisoners. Three prisoners have already been repatriated from Thailand under our bilateral treaty, which came into force in late 2002.

In total, 19 prisoners have been transferred since the International Transfer of Prisoners scheme began in 2002. Sixteen outward transfers have been concluded with the United Kingdom, Netherlands, Spain, Thailand and Israel.

There are currently three Australians sentenced to imprisonment in Hong Kong, in addition to those Australians awaiting trial.

“The aim of the ITP Scheme is to allow prisoners to serve out their sentences in their home country, without language and cultural barriers, to increase their prospects of rehabilitation,” Senator Ellison said. 

“Transferring prisoners to their home country also reduces the financial and emotional burden on their families and reduces the demand on assistance provided by Australia’s consular posts to citizens imprisoned overseas.”

Under the agreement, any Hong Kong nationals sentenced to imprisonment in Australia will also be able to apply for transfer to Hong Kong.

The treaty will allow Australia to impose parole conditions on transferred prisoners upon their release. Transfers under the ITP Scheme are voluntary and require the consent of the transferring jurisdiction, receiving jurisdiction and prisoner to the terms of the transfer.

Transfers under the treaty will be available on completion of domestic treaty processes and the establishment of necessary regulations under the International Transfer of Prisoners Act 1997.  The treaty is expected to come into force in the first half of 2006.

“The Australian Government is committed to expanding the scope of its ITP scheme, particularly with Australia’s regional partners in law enforcement cooperation,” Senator Ellison said. 

Media enquiries:  Brad Burke (02) 6277 7260/(0417) 749 711

Foreign Prisoners Support Service

Australia seeks prisoner deal

Canberra - Australia wants to expedite a prisoner-transfer pact with Hong Kong, Attorney-General Philip Ruddock said on Tuesday, after a Hong Kong court slapped three convicted Australian heroin traffickers with lengthy sentences.

The three, aged 16 to 23, were sentenced on Monday to prison terms ranging from nine years to 13 years and four months, for attempting to smuggle heroin into Sydney a year ago.

Ruddock said Australia was negotiating bilateral prisoner exchange agreements with Hong Kong and several other countries.

"Our focus is on where Australians are held and we are endeavouring to progress those matters as quickly as possible," Ruddock told reporters.

"We are anxious to do so and Hong Kong is another of those areas in which we are having discussions about implementing such arrangements," he added.

In Hong Kong, the youngest defendant, Chris Ha Vo, a 16-year-old fast-food worker, was sentenced to nine years in prison. The other teen defendant, hairdresser Rachel Ann Diaz, 18, was sentenced to 10 years and eight months.

The third defendant, Hutchinson Tran, 23, got 13 years, four months in prison.

"A very sad, tragic case"

Lawmaker Teresa Gambaro said that while prisoner exchange negotiations are still in progress, the three former Sydney residents have 28 days to appeal the severity of their sentences. They all admitted to their crimes.

"It is a very sad, tragic case," Gambaro told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio. "These young people are in the prime of their life, and they will be spending it in jail."

The three have been in custody in Hong Kong since their arrests in a hotel room on April 12 last year, with 701 grams of heroin stuffed in condoms. They planned to swallow the condoms and act as "drug mules" smuggling the narcotics to Sydney, prosecutors said.

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