Police banners heighten fears of crackdown

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 18 May, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 18 May, 2002, 12:00am

Police have taken a leaf out of the protesters' book by using banners to warn unauthorised demonstrators that they face prosecution.

The move has sparked fears of more arrests at illegal demonstrations.

Police have been seen using the banners in addition to their usual loud-hailers in attempts to ensure protesters are in doubt that they may be breaking the law.

Deputy Commissioner Dick Lee Ming-kwai said those at unauthorised rallies had to receive such warnings. 'It's a problem of evidence. The legal system in Hong Kong requires the prosecutor to prove an incident has happened,' he said.

'If there are people saying that they could not hear the loud-hailers because it was too noisy, that is reasonable. So you have to do something else if you want to make people know.'

Asked if there had been any cases in which police could not prosecute because of problems in issuing warnings, Mr Lee said: 'I don't know about the actual situation. But I'm sure this move is to make up for the shortcomings.'

A police spokeswoman said she could not say when a banners had first been used, but claimed they had been in use for some time.

Eric Cheung Tat-ming, assistant professor of the University of Hong Kong's faculty of law, said he believed the banners targeted mainly demonstrators who did not know if the organiser had notified police in advance.

The Public Order Ordinance requires organisers of public assemblies of more than 50 people and marches of more than 30 to obtain a 'letter of no objection' from police seven days in advance.

Those who knowingly take part in an unauthorised rally are committing an offence.

'If a participant does not know that it's an unauthorised demonstration, he does not commit a crime,' Mr Cheung said.

'So far, we have only seen the police prosecuting rally organisers. I can see the use of banners by the police as an indicator that they want to prosecute the participants in future. This is a very bad sign.'

He said the police move could negatively affect freedom of speech, as some people might be frightened out of taking part in demonstrations. He called for a comprehensive review of the assembly ordinance, which was endorsed by the provisional legislature in 1997 and has been criticised by many activists as too stringent.

Legislator Audrey Eu Yuet-mee said last week's arrest and charging of three activists over an alleged unauthorised protest in February suggested plans to tighten enforcement of the Public Order Ordinance.

The three activists, including April 5th Action Group member Leung Kwok-hung, were charged with failing to notify police about their protest. It was the first time such charges had been laid, despite the fact that there have been more than 500 unauthorised demonstrations since the handover.