Manila bus hostage inquest to start in Hong Kong
Sun, Feb 13, 2011

HONG KONG - A Hong Kong inquest into a Manila bus hijacking that left eight tourists dead is set to start Monday, after the incident sparked a diplomatic meltdown over claims of shoddy police work.

The 25-day inquest before Hong Kong's Coroner's Court is due to hear from a host of witnesses, including survivors and families of the Hong Kong hostages killed last August in a botched police rescue attempt aired on live television around the world.

Officers eventually stormed the bus and shot dead the lone gunman Rolando Mendoza, a disgraced ex-cop who hijacked the coach in a bizarre bid to be reinstated after losing his job over corruption allegations.

Soon after the bungled rescue, Hong Kong issued a travel alert on the Philippines, advising citizens not to visit the popular travel destination.

During the 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.

In October, Philippine President Benigno Aquino called for minor criminal charges such as "neglect of duty" to be filed against four police officers for their role in the debacle and lesser administrative charges against the mayor of Manila, Alfredo Lim, and a deputy ombudsman.

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

Staff from the trip's tour operator are slated to testify at the inquest, but none of the 116 Philippine witnesses invited to attend - including police officers, the bus driver, and a reporter who spoke to Mendoza - would come, reports said Friday.

A court spokeswoman declined to confirm the reports.

Last month, Lim said he had declined an invitation to testify in Hong Kong over fears he could be arrested. Manila vice mayor Isko Moreno has also said he would not attend or testify through video conferencing.

Justice Minister Leila de Lima earlier said she would testify if she was called, but Hong Kong authorities did not opt to ask her to appear.

Hong Kong coroner's inquests are generally intended to probe the cause of a person's death, rather than accuse individuals of criminal liability.

"(But) what if the coroner woke up one day and decided we would not be allowed to go home? Who should prevail?" Lim told reporters last month.

"What else is there to investigate? Does it mean the previous (Philippine) investigation is being set aside?" Lim added.

A Philippine government inquiry blamed Lim and the Manila police's handling of the crisis for the hostages' deaths.

However Lim controversially escaped any criminal prosecution after Aquino overruled his justice minister's recommendations and said there was not enough evidence to charge him.

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