The Legislative Council voted on Thursday to allow its staff officers to give evidence against lawmaker “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung over a misconduct case surrounding a donation. The request by the government was criticised by the pro-democracy camp as “setting a very bad precedent” in abandoning the legal protection of lawmakers’ speeches.
Leung was charged with failing to declare a HK$250,000 payment from the assistant of media tycoon Jimmy Lai Chee-ying in 2012. The case will go to trial in the middle of next year.
The Department of Justice (DoJ) requested the LegCo to give approval for its five officers to give evidence over 12 documents – Leung’s oaths of office, meeting records and video recordings – produced between 2004 and 2014. The documents are intended to prove that Leung knew the declaration requirements and that his misconduct was willful and intentional.
All of the documents are on the public record already. The DoJ said it was not seeking to question or challenge what Leung said, but sought to prove Leung said them.
Under the Legislative Council (Powers and Privileges) Ordinance, “freedom of speech and debate shall not be liable to be questioned in any court or place outside the Council”, and no legal proceedings shall be instituted against any member for any words spoken or written in the LegCo. Therefore, LegCo officers must obtain special leave to give evidence in relation to meeting records.
The LegCo has approved such requests eight times in the past without any opposition, including a case surrounding former lawmaker Raymond Wong Yuk-man hurling a glass cup at Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, but none were related to lawmakers’ speeches.
Lawmaker Edward Yiu Chung-yim proposed a motion opposed to granting such permission, essentially questioning the reasoning behind the DoJ’s actions. He was supported by 25 pro-democracy camp members concerned that the DoJ’s request may have violated the Ordinance’s protections, thus creating a chilling effect.
“This protection is especially important under the current authoritarian government,” he said. “If the reason behind it is only to prove a lawmaker has participated in the meetings, there is no need to obtain any meeting records… there is reasonable doubt over whether the DoJ has other purposes in mind.”
“Will the DoJ cite certain words in the meeting records to prove the relationship between Leung’s words and the accusation? Will the DoJ especially pick strong words from him or twist his words criticising the Communist Party to affect his image in the judge’s mind? We are unable to know,” he added.
The motion was rejected with opposition from the pro-Beijing camp, whilst Leung himself did not vote.
DAB party lawmaker Holden Chow Ho-ding criticised that the pro-democracy camp members, saying they were “using freedom of speech as a shield,” and that the accusation against Leung was unrelated to his freedom of speech in the LegCo.
Paul Tse Wai-chun said the DoJ was not asking for confidential documents – he admitted that all of them are in the public domain – but “the timing was a bit unfortunate” and that it may give rise to a feeling of suppression against the pro-democracy camp.
“More time could have been given,” he said.