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Wednesday, September 16, 2020, 10:16
Protest violence: Criminal justice system must hold offenders fully accountable
By Grenville Cross
Wednesday, September 16, 2020, 10:16 By Grenville Cross

Although the violent protests which wracked Hong Kong over the past year have largely abated, the consequences for the culprits remain very much alive. Very few of those responsible for the injuries, the arson attacks and the criminal damage have yet been brought to justice, although the net is now closing in on many of them. In particular, the bell is tolling for those who attacked, injured and maimed hundreds of the police officers who tried to protect Hong Kong from their depredations.

Between, for example, June 9 and Nov 29, 2019, no less than 483 officers were injured by those involved in the social unrest. They ranged in rank from police constable to chief superintendent, and a variety of weapons was used against them. Although some of the culprits were arrested at the scene, many others have been gradually identified after painstaking investigations. The charges they will now face will differ greatly, depending upon the nature of the violence used, as well as its consequences upon the victims.

The challenge for the Department of Justice’s Public Order Events Team (POET), which has yet to process many of the cases, is to ensure that those arrested are tried for offences which fully reflect their criminality. In doing so, its prosecutors will have to consider the weight of the evidence in crimes which, according to the Security Bureau, came about in six discrete sets of circumstances, all violence-related. These charges, of course, will be over and above any public-order charges which the evidence may support, including rioting.

That the officers have, for the greater good, selflessly placed their lives in danger, with many being injured in consequence, underscores the importance of the POET (Public Order Events Team) not only selecting charges which will adequately punish the hooligans, but also deter anyone else who is minded to do anything similar in future

The most serious category involves the officers who were burned by the petrol bombs which the black-clad rioters regularly hurled at police lines and facilities. One officer, for example, who was hit by a petrol bomb while performing his duties at the Tsim Sha Tsui Police Station, suffered severe burns as a result. Anybody responsible for atrocities of this type should be charged with attempted murder, but with the offence of wounding with intent to cause serious bodily harm being added as a possible alternative, just in case an intent to kill cannot be inferred. Both offences are punishable with life imprisonment, although substantial sentences of imprisonment may also be imposed for either.

Other officers, moreover, were burnt by corrosive liquids which were thrown at them as they discharged their duties. One officer, for example, while policing clashes in Tuen Mun, was splashed with corrosive liquid, causing severe skin burns. Again, the POET will need to consider charges of attempted murder, with an alternative of throwing corrosive fluid with intent to do grievous bodily harm, with both offences capable of attracting a maximum penalty of life imprisonment.

Some officers, thirdly, were injured by sharp objects, including knives, cutters, arrows, and specially sharpened weapons, such as iron rods, bamboo sticks, hiking poles and water pipes. Not surprisingly, these items caused a multitude of wounds and lacerations. Whereas one officer underwent life-saving surgery after a thug stabbed him in the neck, another was operated upon after an arrow pierced his leg. The culprits, quite clearly, can expect no quarter, and should be charged with wounding with intent to cause grievous bodily harm, in addition to possession of an offensive weapon in a public place.

Into the fourth category fall those assaults in which the rioters injured police officers by using hard objects, including bricks, iron bars, wooden sticks and stones. Apart from obvious wounds and fractures to all parts of the body, some officers were left with varying degrees of trauma. When it considers the most appropriate charges, the obvious choices for the POET will, apart from the offensive-weapons offences, involve wounding with intent to cause grievous bodily harm and, depending on the evidence, the lesser offence of assault occasioning actual bodily harm, the maximum penalty for which is three years’ imprisonment.

A fifth group of officers was injured by modified weaponry. This included steel beads, glass or other hard objects shot from catapults. These, inevitably, caused an array of abrasions and contusions, with one officer even being struck in the mouth by a metal bead. Although, offensive weapons offences apart, the most likely charge to lay will be assault occasioning actual bodily harm, more serious offences cannot be precluded, including wounding, depending on the suspect’s criminal intent and the actual injury caused, always remembering that, in law, a “wound” includes any injury which breaks the continuity of the skin.

The final category concerns those officers who were assaulted in various ways, often by punching, shoving or kicking, during dispersal operations. Provided these were not too serious, two possible offences suggest themselves. If minor injuries, such as bruising, resulted, a charge of assault occasioning actual bodily harm should lie, but, if not, there is the alternative of assaulting a police officer acting in the execution of his duty. However, the problem here is that the maximum sentence for the latter offence, set long ago, is only six months’ imprisonment and a fine of HK$5,000 ($645), which needs revision, as in the United Kingdom. 

On June 8, after “Black Lives Matter” protesters had injured at least 35 police officers in London alone over a single weekend, the British home secretary, Priti Patel, having promised that “the thugs and criminals responsible” would be brought to justice, announced that the maximum sentences for those who attacked the police would be doubled. What, in practice, this meant is that Patel plans to increase the penalty from one to two years’ imprisonment. Although that it still very low, it is four times higher than the maximum for the corresponding offence in Hong Kong, and the Security Bureau must also urgently consider a substantial increase, thereby providing the police with greater protection as they execute their duties.

In the meantime, notwithstanding the low maximum penalty, it is incumbent upon the courts to adhere faithfully to that said in the High Court by Justice Gareth Lugar-Mawson, in a tariff judgment in 2002; namely, “there is certainly no doubt that assaults on police officers are serious offences and are ones that should always attract custodial sentences, save in exceptional circumstances” (HCMA 183/2002).

It is often said, moreover, that the victims of crime have a right to see offenders held to account, not least because this demonstrates that justice has finally prevailed, something which helps them to achieve closure. It must, therefore, be clearly understood that this applies just as much to police officers who are injured in the course of their duty as it does to, say, the victims of sexual assault, domestic violence or armed robbery. That the officers have, for the greater good, selflessly placed their lives in danger, with many being injured in consequence, underscores the importance of the POET not only selecting charges which will adequately punish the hooligans, but also deter anyone else who is minded to do anything similar in future.

After all, if the police force had not acted, over many months, with such professionalism, and with an avoidance of the fatalities which, for example, have characterized police operations this summer in the United States, the consequences would have been dire. The men of violence, whose mantra — “If we burn, you burn with us” — showed everyone their true colors, were only too happy to destroy the city, and they came close to doing so. If, at this crucial time, the police force had buckled, the central authorities would have had no choice but to step in militarily, and this could have had profound consequences for our capitalist system and way of life.

Quite simply, therefore, the police force saved Hong Kong, as it confronted its worst threats for many decades, and it did so well before the enactment of the National Security law on June 30. Although some people, in Hong Kong and elsewhere, were prepared to sacrifice the city in order to harm China, they reckoned without the resolve of the police force to defend it. As so often in the past, the force rose to the challenge, fearlessly confronting rioters and bombers, protecting life and limb, safeguarding the courts, public facilities and universities, defending private businesses and restaurants, restoring both peace to the streets and stability to our lives.

By doing all this, the police force was able to ensure that the “one country, two systems” paradigm survived, and, if any Nobel Peace Prizes are up for grabs, there could be no better recipient.

The author is a senior counsel, law professor and criminal justice analyst, and was previously the director of public prosecutions of the Hong Kong SAR.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily. 

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