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Friday, December 04, 2020, 11:30
Lawbreakers all got punished as justice prevails in HKSAR
By Grenville Cross
Friday, December 04, 2020, 11:30 By Grenville Cross

On June 21, 2019, extraordinary scenes played out at the Police headquarters in Wanchai. Up to 9,000 black-clad protesters besieged the building from 11am to 3:45am the next day, causing numerous officers to be trapped. The entrances were blockaded, walls were vandalized and surveillance cameras were smashed.

As intended, huge inconvenience was caused to the community as a whole. Traffic was disrupted, bus and minibus routes were re-directed, and 61 emergency 999 calls were not dealt with. The sight of the baying mob shocked many observers, including the six officers who were falsely imprisoned in a police van for three hours. To avoid bloodshed, however, the police adopted a “hands-off” approach, waiting for matters to de-escalate before finally stepping in.

The protesters, of course, had various demands, which they naively assumed could be achieved through intimidation and violence. Apart from the withdrawal of the fugitive surrender proposals, they also called for the charges to be dropped against those arrested for violence outside the Legislative Council complex, and for the re-classification of the June 12 riot as a “non-riot”. 

These demands, quite clearly, were illogical, and, insofar as they sought an end to ongoing criminal investigations, they were an attempt to pervert the course of public justice. They were also an affront to the rule of law, with organizers apparently believing that mob rule would carry the day. However, it did not, and those who sought to get their way by unlawful means have now faced justice.

On December 2, Joshua Wong Chi-fung, 24, Agnes Chow Ting, 23, and Ivan Lam Long-yin, 26, all previously members of the localist Demosisto party, were imprisoned at the West Kowloon Court for their involvement in bringing about the 15-hour siege of police headquarters, with each receiving a sentencing discount for having shown remorse by pleading guilty (WKCC 2289/2020). Wong, who had previous convictions for unlawful assembly and contempt of court, was sentenced to 13 months 2 weeks imprisonment, Chow to 10 months’ imprisonment, and Lam, who had four convictions of a similar nature, to 7 months’ imprisonment.   

Wong, a professional agitator, was the leading figure in the criminal enterprise. He carefully planned the event, and the video evidence showed him telling people at the scene that they should get others to join in and “completely besiege police headquarters”. He was convicted of both organizing and inciting an unauthorized assembly, while Lam was convicted of incitement alone. Chow was convicted of both inciting and participating in an unauthorized assembly, and the evidence showed that she was highly active in encouraging others throughout the siege. 

The maximum sentence for involvement in an unauthorized assembly which is tried in the Magistrates Court is 3 years’ imprisonment, and a fine of HK$5,000. The trio, therefore, can count themselves lucky that, despite their guilty pleas, their sentences were not longer, in light of their significant roles. If, however, they thought they were above the law, or if they imagined that their foreign allies would shield them, they have now had a rude awakening.

Although their lawyers urged everything possible on their behalf in mitigation, this was a very serious case, and condign punishment was inevitable. As the Permanent Magistrate, Wong Sze-lai, explained, the unauthorized assembly was “well-planned”, and the defendants had “called on protesters to besiege the headquarters and chanted slogans that undermine the police force”. In the circumstances, community service, which had been suggested, was not an appropriate response to the crimes that had occurred. Instead, it was necessary for the court to “take into account factors such as protecting the public, meting out penalties, open condemnation and deterrence”. 

Quite clearly, those who are involved in organizing or inciting unauthorized assemblies which seek to intimidate others or to cause major disruption, and which result in other crimes, such as false imprisonment and criminal damage, must, in the public interest, be punished appropriately. If they are not, others may be encouraged to follow suit. A fundamental objective of criminal justice is ensuring public safety, and the courts, by the sentences they pass, must show their disapproval of crimes which threaten the stability of Hong Kong. 

The magistrate, therefore, was quite correct to emphasize that, since the case involved a breach of public order and safety, including “the personal safety of the public”, deterrent sentences were necessary in order to “safeguard public interests and the lives and property of the people”. In cases of unauthorized assembly, the gravity of the crime is assessed by such factors as the role of the offender, the degree of organization, the duration, the disruption caused, the danger posed, and the number of participants. Once those criteria are applied to this case, it becomes clear that it falls into a very serious category. The magistrate’s conclusion, therefore, that “immediate imprisonment is the only appropriate option”, is unimpeachable. 

In the Court of Appeal, Justice Ross Penlington once said that “the object of any sentence is first of all to deter the offender and also other members of the public likely to commit that sort of offence” (CACC 509/1986), and this remains so. If, moreover, a court is weakly merciful, or does not take a crime seriously, or fails to do its duty, it will undermine the efficacy of the criminal law. The three lawbreakers have, despite their foreign connections, now received their just deserts, and the rule of law has prevailed. 

In a bizarre response, however, Amnesty International Asia Pacific’s regional director, Yamini Mishra, claimed that the trio had been imprisoned “in violation of their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly”. This, of course, is the type of drivel normally associated with the former governor, Chris Patten, not with a once reputable organization, and it is, in any event, contradicted by the defendants’ own guilty pleas. They were not imprisoned for exercising their rights, but, as they themselves admitted, for their roles in organizing and inciting serious public disorder, by means of a siege of the police headquarters.

As Patten well knows, no other country, let alone the UK, would ever tolerate people who create chaos by besieging police stations. If protesters had, for example, paralyzed New Scotland Yard, in London, and prevented its officers from handling 999 calls for hours on end, he would have demanded their heads on a plate. Because, however, this happened in Hong Kong, this arch-hypocrite now seeks to downplay its gravity, even calling the punishment of the culprits a “grim example of China’s determination to put Hong Kong in handcuffs”. 

Patten, of course, has form for indulging in reckless criticism of this type. In 2017, for example, three activists, including Joshua Wong, were imprisoned for what the Court of Appeal called “a large-scale, unlawful assembly, involving violence”, which left 10 security guards injured, with one having to take 39 days sick leave. Instead, however, of condemning their violence or sympathizing with their victims, Patten, in an extraordinary outburst, described the imprisonment of the culprits as “a serious error on the part of Hong Kong’s government”, which was “deplorable”. As he should have known, given his years in Hong Kong, the offenders were not imprisoned by the government but by the judges, and, as the Bar Association and the Law Society made clear in a joint statement at the time, court rulings are made “solely according to law”. 

Patten, unfortunately, has learned nothing from that ill-judged intervention, and is still peddling his myths. He should, nonetheless, at least try to face up to the inconvenient truth that a professional magistrate, exercising an independent judgment, has punished three offenders for serious public order offences, and has done so on the basis of their own admissions of guilt, the evidence presented and the relevant law. 

On June 13, moreover, Patten announced that he had been made a patron of the London-based Hong Kong Watch, the sinophobic propaganda outfit which specializes in maligning China and whitewashing the excesses of the protest movement, and it is now clear why. His capacity for self-delusion is second to none, and makes him a perfect fit in a grouping of self-important fantasists.

But if, just for once, the likes of Patten and Mishra can get real, they will be able to see that nobody in Hong Kong is above the law, that criminals are held to account for grave offences, and that justice ultimately prevails over mayhem.

The author is a senior counsel, law professor and co-author of “Sentencing in Hong Kong”, 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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