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Published: 12:05, November 17, 2023 | Updated: 22:58, November 20, 2023
Thou shall not bear false witness
By Ronny Tong
Published:12:05, November 17, 2023 Updated:22:58, November 20, 2023 By Ronny Tong

Many believers, and I am not just talking about Christians, were shocked by the petition (“the Petition”) recently signed by 10 bishops from various  countries calling on the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region government to “immediately and unconditionally release” media mogul Jimmy Lai Chee-ying, who has already been convicted of fraud and is awaiting trial on other charges including national security offenses. People were shocked because these religious leaders seem to think their beliefs about Lai’s “innocence” are superior to a court of law without any examination as to what Lai might have done.

I confess that I am not a religious person. But I do know that bearing false witness is a serious sin under the Ten Commandments. It is one of the basic tenets of Christianity and many other religions that deceit is a moral crime if not a criminal offense. As Exodus 23: 1-3 states: “You shall not spread a false report. You shall not join hands with a wicked man and be a malicious witness. You shall not fall in with the many to do evil, nor shall you bear witness in a lawsuit, siding with the many, so as to pervert justice, nor shall you be partial to a poor man in his lawsuit.” 

In a moral world, whether or not one believes in the concept of innocence before being proven guilty, we leave the judging to a court of competent jurisdiction and the evidence presented to that court. We do not accuse judges of lying or being partial without concrete evidence. We do not insist on freeing a criminal after he has been convicted by a court of law.

The Roman Catholic Church interprets the command against “false witness” more broadly than the historical context of perjury, and considers it a broad prohibition against misrepresenting the truth in one’s relationships with others. The essence of the Commandment enjoins truthfulness and respect for others’ good name. It prohibits detraction, calumny, gossip, rash judgment, lying, and the violation of secrets. Respect for the reputation of people forbids every attitude or word likely to cause unjust injury. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, one is guilty of rash judgment who assumes the moral fault of a neighbor without sufficient foundation. One is guilty of detraction who discloses another’s faults and failings to people who did not know them without an objectively valid reason. One is guilty of calumny (a misrepresentation intended to harm another’s reputation) who harms the reputation of others and gives occasion for false judgments concerning them by remarks contrary to the truth.

What I understand from the above is that gossip and slander are as much cardinal sins as bearing false witness in a literal sense. The Petition cites no evidence but decried Lai’s prosecution as “persecution for supporting pro-democracy causes”. It is obvious that the Petition was penned by a person much influenced by the political opinion of the West. But that is not evidence of trumped-up charges or corrupt judges. Put realistically, it is just political propaganda. Hong Kong trials are open, and the evidence presented is recorded publicly for all to see. How can anyone ignore this disciplined process as if it does not exist?

As to the all too easy accusation of persecution, one must not getcarried away too readily simply because Western media and politicians are repeating it every day. According to article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nation General Assembly in 1948, political persecution is not to be confused with “prosecutions genuinely arising from non-political crimes or from acts contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations”. Fraud is obviously a nonpolitical crime. So, before any bishop were to sign the Petition, should he not at the very least sit back and consider the facts and the evidence in support of Lai’s conviction for fraud?

There is a further aspect of the Petition which is worrying. To insist on Lai’s alleged innocence and calling for his “immediate and unconditional release” is a not-so-subtle attack on the integrity of our judges. To suggest our judges would imprison someone simply because of his alleged “pro-democracy” beliefs without reference to facts is to accuse our judges of political bias and corruption of the worst kind. Is that not calumny of the very kind vilified by the Church?

In the end, the Petition is doing the Church a disservice. It brings the ugly face of politics into the religious world where it does not belong. Perhaps there are some redeeming features in Lai’s case. Perhaps not. But it is not for people who do not care about facts or reason to blindly accuse any jurisdiction as being corrupt and biased as these bishops would like the world to believe.

The 16th-century German theologian Martin Luther declared, “God therefore would have it prohibited that any one speak evil of another even though he be guilty, and the latter know it right well; much less if he do not know it, and have it only from hearsay” These are salutary words. In the Christian world or otherwise.

The author is a former chairman of the Hong Kong Bar Association, a member of the Executive Council, and convener of the Path of Democracy.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily. 

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