In spite of the coronavirus pandemic, Hong Kong courts had an eventful 2020, filled with controversial cases, highly anticipated decisions and legal dramas closely watched by locals and the international community alike amid growing concerns over the city’s judicial independence.
Hundreds of cases related to last year’s anti-government protests were concluded, with prosecutors securing the first convictions for rioting and doxxing, while some 1,500 defendants are still gradually moving through the system.
In the second half of the year, however, prosecutions involving the national security law moved to the fore, with all eyes on how Hong Kong courts would interpret the sweeping legislation Beijing imposed on June 30.
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These protest-related cases drew widespread attention and criticism from both sides of the political aisle in Hong Kong and beyond, with some demanding stiffer punishments and others the release of those remanded.
Judicial officers were labelled by colour, doxxed and subjected to death threats. Some received thousands of complaints, questioning their rulings, comments and political leanings.
But it was not until late October that the secretary for justice finally applied for an injunction from the High Court to protect all 41 categories of judicial officers from doxxing activities.
In response to the criticisms, the judiciary also introduced new measures to address the growing number of complaints and improve the transparency of court rulings.
As a busy 2020 draws to a close, we have highlighted the year’s 10 most controversial cases:
Mask ban upheld
The colonial-era Emergency Regulations Ordinance survived its first constitutional challenge since Hong Kong’s 1997 handover to China, when the Court of Final Appeal on December 21 dismissed all grounds of criticism former opposition lawmakers had brought against a controversial mask ban.
The five judges unanimously agreed that the ban the ordinance had been used to introduce was a proportionate and valid measure, with a clear societal benefit – even for peaceful public meetings – given the dire situation on the streets following months of violence last year.
“Something had to be done,” the court began in its 71-page judgment, which was handed down at a time when the wearing of masks has been made compulsory in the government’s bid to contain Covid-19.
A law’s first defendant
Waiter Tong Ying-kit, 23, became the first person charged under the national security law, days after its introduction. He was accused of inciting secession and engaging in terrorism, for allegedly driving a motorcycle into a group of police officers at a July 1 protest while carrying a flag bearing the popular protest slogan “Liberate Hong Kong; revolution of our times”. He tested the constitutionality of the new law’s bail provision by applying for a writ of habeas corpus in August, but failed and was ordered to foot the government’s legal bill. His case is set for trial at the High Court.
A tycoon’s troubles
Media tycoon Jimmy Lai Chee-ying is the most prominent figure yet to face national security law charges and the first of four defendants to win court bail. But the tailor-made terms of his release were akin to house arrest and he was barred from acts that might “reasonably be regarded as” colluding with foreign forces, including meeting with foreign officials, granting media interviews and even tweeting. Prosecutors are seeking to appeal Lai’s HK$10 million (US$1.3 million) bail.
The 73-year-old founder of Next Digital, which owns the Apple Daily newspaper, had spent 20 days in custody over a separate fraud case in which his two co-defendants had been granted bail. He also faces four other public order-related cases alongside some 30 opposition figures, including prominent barristers Martin Lee Chu-ming SC and Margaret Ng Oi-yee, activist Joshua Wong Chi-fung and Civil Human Rights Front convenor Figo Chan Ho-wun. Their trials will be heard in February at the earliest.
Tam Tak-chi, the 48-year-old vice-chairman of localist group People Power, became the first person charged with sedition since the handover after his arrest for chanting slogans.
But prosecutors later determined his alleged offences were a danger to national security and made a controversial application in November for his cases to be handled by a judge designated to handle such cases, despite the fact that he was not charged under the national security law.
Chief District Judge Justin Ko King-sau eventually assigned a designated judge, but said he was only exercising his administrative function as a listing judge with a duty to ensure cases are brought before the appropriate judges with minimum delay.
A death examined
The Coroner’s Court delved deep into the troubled life of 15-year-old Chan Yin-lam, tracing her final footsteps before she mysteriously turned up dead in the harbour off Tseung Kwan O on September 22, 2019. Her death had been the subject of wild conspiracy theories and unsubstantiated rumours among many anti-government protesters. A five-member jury returned an open verdict on September 11 after Coroner Ko Wai-hung ruled out suicide and homicide.
Locks in lock-up
The Court of Final Appeal on November 27 ruled that a prison requirement for male inmates to keep their hair short constituted sex discrimination, ending a six-year legal battle mounted by ousted opposition lawmaker “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung, who was forced to crop his signature locks while behind bars in 2014.
“The discrimination was so obvious,” he said, tossing and fussing with his flowing hair outside the courthouse in Central after his David vs Goliath victory over prison bosses.
A sentence undone
Magistrate Kelly Shui became one of three magistrates to receive thousands of complaints after she placed a 15-year-old boy, whom she described as an “excellent kid”, on 18 months’ probation on May 26 for hurling three petrol bombs, something he said he had done to vent his frustration over the authorities’ handling of last year’s protests. That sentence was replaced by a detention order in September after the Court of Appeal sided with prosecutors in finding a non-custodial option was not enough to deter young people from committing serious crimes.
The High Court on November 19 ruled that the police commissioner’s failure to maintain an effective system to ensure uniformed officers deployed during the unrest displayed their identification numbers had violated the city’s Bill of Rights. The judge also found the government’s existing mechanism for dealing with complaints against police inadequate, despite Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor’s insistence it was capable of handling complaints arising from the protests. Police appealed the decision after consulting the Department of Justice.
Love and marriage
Human rights activist Jimmy Sham Tsz-kit on September 18 lost his legal bid for a general declaration that Hong Kong laws violated the constitutional right to equality when they recognised foreign heterosexual marriages but not homosexual unions such as his, which was registered in New York. The outspoken activist had launched the challenge, asking: “Why should we homosexuals have to mount 10, or 100, judicial reviews to fight for the rights that we are entitled to?” The court replied that context matters and there cannot be a general rule applicable in all circumstances.
A ‘cold-blooded’ killing
University of Hong Kong professor Cheung Kie-chung, 56, admitted in court to killing his wife of 30 years, 53-year-old Tina Chan Wai-man, with two electrical wires after an argument over orange juice turned ugly. But the academic said he had no intention of killing her, while his lawyers depicted him as a sad figure who suddenly snapped and lost temporary control due to chronic psychological abuse allegedly inflicted by his wife. His defence team argued for a lesser charge of manslaughter, but the jury sided with prosecutors in finding him guilty of murder, by a vote of 5-2. Cheung was jailed for life on December 3, with the judge describing his killing as “cold-blooded”.
Which stories mattered most to you in 2020? Find out with our Year In Review 2020 retrospective.
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This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (www.scmp.com), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia.
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