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HKFP Person of the Month, February 2017: Judge David Dufton of the Ken Tsang assault case

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A Hong Kong newsmaker is chosen each month by HKFP. Click here to view previous nominees. District Court Judge David Dufton is selected as our Person of the Month for February 2017.

Judge David Dufton

“Like all my colleagues, I am merely doing what every person holding judicial office should do. We are under a constitutional duty to administer justice fairly and impartially, to uphold the rule of law and to maintain the independence of the Judiciary.” – Mr Justice Patrick Chan, non-permanent judge of the Court of Final Appeal

After a high-profile trial, on February 14, Judge Dufton convicted seven police officers of assaulting activist Ken Tsang at the height of the 2014 pro-democracy Occupy protests. Three days later, he sentenced them each to two years’ imprisonment.

Handing down the sentence, he said that the officers “damaged Hong Kong’s reputation in the international community… There was no justification to take Tsang to the substation for the assault.”

He acknowledged the “unique circumstances” and stress police officers faced during the Occupy protests, but he rejected the defendants’ plea for a suspended sentence on the basis that the case was “very serious.”

All of the seven officers have since appealed.

Target of insults

Following the conviction, Judge Dufton faced a raft of abuse from police supporters, both online and offline. Messages labelling him a “dog” and questioning the impartiality of non-ethnic Chinese judges circulated among pro-police groups.

At a pro-police rally last month, a protester dressed up as a judge as others pretended to beat him.

The son of a powerful Chinese army commander even offered RMB10,000 (HK$11,300) on Chinese social media for someone to “beat” Judge Dufton.

Police groups and supporters argue that the sentence was too heavy. Legal scholar Johannes Chan has urged them to read the judgment before making the claim.

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A pro-police protester dressed as a judge and another pretended to hit him. Photo: Apple Daily.

A spokesperson for the Department of Justice told HKFP last week that it was “very concerned” about the attacks on the judge and that it has referred conduct that may constitute contempt of court to law enforcement agencies.

A police spokesperson said the force is investigating the incidents, but no one has been arrested thus far.

‘Upward trend’

Bar Association Chair Paul Lam and the Progressive Lawyers Group have expressed concern at an upward trend of “unreasonable” criticism from the general public.

While pro-Beijing activists often cite anti-Western rhetoric and argue that the judiciary is “too powerful,” judges have also been targeted by pro-democracy supporters.

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Pro-police rally. Photo: HKFP/Ellie Ng.

Last December, a magistrate who heard cases related to the Mong Kok unrest that erupted last February alerted police after receiving a blade in the mail. Another magistrate cited threats just before sentencing a woman charged with assaulting police officers with her breasts.

The Department of Justice and legal experts have urged the public to respect the rule of law and refrain from making comments that might exert pressure on individual judges.

HKFP Person of the Month, February 2017: Judge David Dufton of the Ken Tsang assault case