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Hong Kong jury criticizes Manila in hostage crisis

By Joyce Woo

HONG KONG, March 23, 2011 (AFP) – A Hong Kong inquest jury heaped criticism on Philippine authorities Wednesday for their slow response to a bus hijacking in Manila that left eight tourists from the city dead.

The five-member jury found that all eight visitors were unlawfully killed and said the authorities’ botched handling of the crisis directly led to the victims’ deaths.

As the drama unfolded live on television last August, police stormed the bus and shot dead lone gunman Rolando Mendoza, who had seized the vehicle in a desperate bid to be reinstated as a policeman after losing his job over corruption allegations.

“Philippine authorities did not respond to Mendoza’s requests in an appropriate or timely manner,” the jury said.

“Philippine officials left to dine at a restaurant even after Mendoza fired warning shots, meaning no one was on scene to take command when Mendoza started firing at the hostages,” it added in its verdict.

The inquest heard minute-by-minute details of the crisis, including that Mendoza warned at least 10 times during telephone interviews with journalists that he would start shooting the hostages.

But the findings do not ascribe criminal or civil liability to anyone involved.

Coroner’s Officer Jat Sew-tong told reporters outside court: “The purpose of this inquest is to show what had happened in the incident. It is not intended to shed light on who is to blame or who should be responsible.”

Coroner Judge Michael Chan said in court: “After this inquest, I believe the public can see clearly what had happened in the tragedy.”

The 28-day inquest held at the Hong Kong Coroner’s Court heard 31 witnesses from the city, but only 10 out of 116 Philippine witnesses attended to give evidence.

“We are very satisfied with the outcome of the court,” said Tse Chi-kin, the brother of slain tour guide Masa Tse, who was shot in the neck while handcuffed.

“This investigation is much more professional compared to the Philippine investigation — we were able to discover more facts about what had happened.

“But this death inquest is only the first step for victims’ families. We will seek further action — like civil action,” he added.

In his closing submission, Hectar Pun, a lawyer for the victims’ families, had described the fatal hostage-taking as “a tragedy that could have been avoided.”

“It was because of the incompetence of the Philippines’ police that eight people died and others were injured,” he added.

The bungled rescue prompted outrage in Hong Kong, which issued a travel alert for the entire Philippines, advising citizens not to visit the country.

During the ensuing diplomatic row and with public anger running high in Hong Kong, some of the more than 100,000 Philippine maids in the southern Chinese city said they faced threats and harassment, and feared losing their jobs.

A Philippine government inquiry blamed the mayor of Manila, Alfredo Lim, and the Manila police’s handling of the crisis for the hostages’ deaths.

But Lim controversially escaped criminal prosecution after Philippine President Benigno Aquino overruled his justice minister’s recommendations and called for minor charges such as “neglect of duty” to be filed against four police officers, and lesser administrative charges brought against Lim and a deputy ombudsman.

The move drew heavy criticism in Hong Kong, stoking calls for an inquiry in the Chinese territory.

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