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Reactions in Hong Kong and Beijing to the police assault case show scant respect for rule of law

By Charles Tsang

Rallied by the police unions, thousands of members of the force of different ranks, joined by their families, retired colleagues, and even legislators, attended an assembly held in the guise of an “extraordinary general meeting” of the unions.

Leaders of the unions claimed that the single item on the “agenda” of the EGM was how to support the seven police officers who had been sent to prison.  It was even “resolved” in the EGM that a criminal offence of “scandalizing police officers” should be created.

police rally

Photo: HKFP/Catherine Lai.

Upon the conviction of policemen for their commission of one of the most notorious police brutality cases in the history of Hong Kong, there has simply been no investigation or review conducted – either by the police internally or by official watchdogs. There has been no effort to tackle the issue of misconduct on the part of the law enforcement personnel. Instead, Mr. Stephen Lo Wai-chung, the police chief, expressed to his subordinates his unambiguous support for the convicted officers and their families.

Leaders of the police unions also commented on the verdict and the sentence imposed on their colleagues before the EGM.  According to the chairman of the junior officers’ union, “the conviction contradicts the laws we learned in the police academy.”

There was no further elaboration to enlighten the public as to how the curriculum in the Police College accorded with the statutes and common law, in which a police officer is forbidden to assault a suspect who is already handcuffed. The police union leaders nevertheless proceeded to gather a crowd of off-duty officers – and they were encouraged to “speak their minds” about their experiences.

police rally

Photo: HKFP/Kris Cheng.

An officer suggested the insults inflicted on the police were similar to the way the Jews were persecuted and gassed by the Nazis.  Another policeman, claiming that he wanted to repeat the “daily words” he heard, led the crowd to chant “fuck your mother”.

If we find it disturbing to see how an individual police officer responds to a court ruling, after due process, imprisoning law enforcement agents for unlawful violence, the message collectively conveyed by the police force can be even more worrying.

In response to the police rally, netizens shared an old photograph capturing another assembly of police officers in 1977.  After gathering to express their anger towards the prosecution of bribe-taking officers by the newly formed ICAC, policemen invaded the headquarters of the anti-corruption agency and injured five agents.

police rally

2017 and 1977. Photo: HKFP/Wikicommons.

To avoid further disorder, the Governor granted a general pardon for all corruption offences committed before 1977, except those considered by the Governor as “so heinous as to warrant action”, and those in relation to individuals who had fled from Hong Kong or were already under investigation.  The Governor also stated unequivocally that no further mercy could be expected.

While some lawyers, in support of the police, have already proposed that a pardon of the assault offence should be granted to the seven officers so as to boost the morale of the cops, the union leaders – at least right after the EGM – claimed that the unions were determined to assist the seven officers’ appeal for “quashing the conviction”.

While police leaders are making no plea for mercy at this stage, we simply cannot ignore the fact that the prosecution has already been manipulated by the hardliners in the force to stir up discontent among their fellow-officers, who in turn endorse such hardliners in their campaign to criminalize “abusive” or insulting behaviour towards police officers.

As a matter of fact, the debate surrounding proposals to prohibit insults against police is not something new. While there has been a decline in confidence in the handling of complaints against police, as well as prevention of abuse of police power, there has been virtually no progress in reaching a consensus among different stakeholders about whether more legal protection should be given to police officers when dealing with the general public.

ken tsang verdict police pro-Beijing

A pro-police rally. Photo: HKFP/Ellie Ng.

We have every reason to worry that a widespread anger towards punishment of the seven cops has already been seized by the police unionists as a means to “bargain” with society for promulgation of the new law, just like 40 years ago.  Sometimes people give a name to similar attempts by armed forces to coerce for change of political course: a coup.

During the legal procedure which was described by Mr. Tim Hamlett as “at its customary leisurely pace”, the prosecution team, consisting of two silks and one senior DOJ prosecutor, and even the police’s own investigators, endeavoured to commit themselves to professionalism. Political concerns were not relevant and did not come up.

This case is the first case since the outbreak of Umbrella Movement to produce intensive Beijing comments in respect of local criminal proceedings.  Even when some cases in relation to the Mongkok “riot” led to the prosecution failing, or lenient sentences, there was self-restraint among the press at “national” level compared with the outburst of attacks this week.

There were references to the ethnicity of the trial judge, with claims that “foreign judges conspire to punish policemen while treating the demonstrators leniently”. Commentators from the Mainland warned that discrepancies in terms of judicial systems on both sides of the Shenzhen River could eventually lead to concerns from “the Grandpa” over whether national security would be hindered if judges in Hong Kong gave out more decisions which could “impact” the dignity of the ruling regime.

Just before the end of last year, the Central Authorities acted vigorously in directing how the Hong Kong legislature (and even the Court of First Instance) should deal with two legislators who allegedly offended the whole nation when taking the oath, eventually leading to their removal from office. Will the court system be the next organ in which members who act “in breach of national interest” should be dealt with so as to safeguard “national security”?

pro police rally

A pro-police rally. Photo: Dan Garrett.

After 40 years, Hong Kong police officers, like their predecessors, express what they think the law ought to be in an aggressive and uncompromising manner, and even attempt to define what the current law is.

But this time, the challenge launched by the local police force, as a whole, is reinforced by some sophisticated and calculated arguments that judicial independence in Hong Kong, resting on the foundation of common law as guaranteed by the Basic Law, may eventually conflict with the growth of national power.

Charles Tsang formerly worked as a legal clerk at several law firms, the Department of Justice and the Legal Aid Department. He blogs about law-related issues at Charles Not A Lawyer and holds an LLB degree from the University of London.

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Reactions in Hong Kong and Beijing to the police assault case show scant respect for rule of law