G.O.D. case shows need to review anti-triad law

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 19 January, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 19 January, 2008, 12:00am

The arrest of the owner and staff of G.O.D., a chain of lifestyle stores, last year for selling T-shirts and postcards bearing the name of a triad society understandably raised concerns. While the police have a duty to enforce laws aimed at preventing the promotion of organised crime, the raid in this case appeared to be an overreaction. So the decision this week not to press charges is a sensible one. It is a happy ending to an affair that pitched artistic freedom against efforts to combat crime.

The outcome does not, however, resolve important questions raised by the case or prevent such a situation from arising again. Artists, designers and those who sell their products have been left wondering how far they can push the boundaries without breaking the law. Police were alerted to the sale of the T-shirts months after they began. Raids on three shops attracted wide media coverage. A senior anti-triad officer warned anyone who had bought a T-shirt not to wear it, or risk up to seven years' jail and a HK$250,000 fine. More than two months later it emerges, so far without explanation, that no charges will be brought against anyone involved.

The police and prosecutors may well feel that they have made their point and that there is nothing to be gained from proceeding with the case. But it does leave them open to allegations that the raid was just an attempt to raise public awareness of the anti-triad law. That would be unfortunate. The police should not be criticised for following the letter of the law in making the arrests. The community expects them to prevent triad societies from flourishing and to combat their criminal operations.

People from the retailer were arrested under a law that bars a range of triad or triad-related activity, such as attending triad meetings, supporting triad organisations, claiming to be a member of a triad, or possessing triad paraphernalia. Such a law is needed. However, the relevant provision of the Societies Ordinance also covers books, writings and insignia 'of or related to any triad society' - presumably the part of the legislation alleged to have been breached. The law is clearly targeted at the activities of triad members and those who wish to pass themselves off as triads for the purposes of crime.

The police are entitled to be concerned that T-shirts bearing the name 14K in Chinese characters might be worn by gang members and promote crime. But it is hardly likely that it was envisaged when the law was passed that people selling fashion items would be in breach of it, even given police concerns about the use to which they may be put. Police have a duty to go about their duty diligently. In this case, however, pressing charges would have achieved nothing in the war against organised crime.

This is not the only time this chain has been mischievous in its merchandising and the owner has wisely promised to seek legal advice in future. But the police raid has wider implications. Interpreted broadly, the law would mean books and academic papers could not mention the names of triad societies, newspapers could not name them in factual reports and films could not portray them. Happily there is no suggestion such prosecutions will follow.

Freedom of expression extends to art, commercial activities and even clothing. There is no longer a case over the T-shirts that might have tested the validity of this law in court. But the questions about its scope remain. The government should revisit the law and amend it to clarify the position and ensure the legislation does not cast its net too wide.