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Crimes and Punishment

David Blake Knox
Hong Kong’s War Crimes Trials, by Suzannah Linton, Oxford University Press, 304 pp, £60, ISBN: 978-0199643288 The Imperial Japanese Army invaded Hong Kong on December 8th, 1941 – just a few hours after an attack had been launched on the American naval base at Pearl Harbor. Seventeen days later ‑ on the morning of Christmas Day ‑ the British garrison surrendered. Hong Kong was occupied by Japan for most of the next four years – and during that time the Imperial Army committed atrocities on a mass scale. The first significant war crime occurred even before the British had surrendered – when Japanese troops entered a hospital facility and killed almost two hundred wounded soldiers. They also raped and murdered the nursing staff. At another hospital, Japanese troops gouged out eyes, cut off noses, ears and tongues and hacked off limbs from defenceless patients. This terror was only a foretaste of what was to come. It is reckoned that at least ten thousand Chinese women were raped in the first few days of the occupation – and more than twice that number were killed. Throughout the following years, the Kempeitai – the Imperial Army’s security police ‑ treated the indigenous Chinese population as less than human. They routinely performed executions – including beheadings ‑ in the city’s public parks, and used innocent civilians for bayonet and shooting practice. They also forced large numbers of Hong Kong’s citizens to move to the Chinese mainland – where many thousands were to die of famine, disease and exposure. In 1941, when the Japanese arrived in Hong Kong, around 1.6 million people were living there. In 1945, when they left, the population barely numbered six hundred thousand. British military courts began a series of war crimes trials in Hong Kong in January of 1946. Altogether, there would be forty-six trials ‑ with 123 Japanese soldiers and officials accused of being war criminals. From the beginning, it was clear that the British wanted to avoid any accusation that they were engaged in an arbitrary exercise of power. They wished to maintain a strict adherence to the concept of legality. However, Hong Kong was a crown colony – which meant that its legal position was somewhat anomalous. The military courts operated within the terms of the Geneva conventions, but they were also subject to British substantive criminal laws – as well as those of general courts…

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