Court of opinion
Everyone's angry - yet again. This time people are enraged that a judge didn't jail a rich girl for slapping a policeman. They believe our justice system favours the wealthy. But we need to straighten something out. Are people angry that a rich girl got off? Or are they angry that she got off because she's a rich girl?
There's a huge difference. Maybe the people are mostly angry because Amina Bokhary got off even though it's her third offence, rich or poor aside? It's important we pin it down.
If the people feel the judge was too lenient despite Bokhary's record of attacking police officers then we're saying he's incompetent. We're also interfering with his independence to rule as he sees fit. If people are angry that her wealth got her off then we're saying our justice system bows blatantly to the rich. If people are angry that her family connections saved her then we're saying our justice system is corrupt.
All of those things jab at the very heart of our much-touted rule of law. Such is the fallout from the Bokhary ruling that most people you talk to are now convinced our justice system is biased towards the elite class.
I am still waiting for Justice Secretary Wong Yan-lung to publicly assure us otherwise. Maybe he wants to preserve his image as the phantom of the government.
Public outrage has forced his department to appeal against magistrate Anthony Yuen Wai-ming's soft treatment of Bokhary. But how does that reverse the belief that our courts are buddies with the big guys? If anything, it makes things even worse.
Sure, let's hold our anger so that the judicial process can run its course, as calmer voices have urged. Justice will prevail in the end. Really? Let's face facts. Would the government have even appealed against the magistrate's ruling if the public hadn't so shrilly shouted foul?
Does the prevailing of justice mean the jailing of Bokhary? If a higher court does jail her, would the people put it down to the fairness of the judicial process? Or would it come across as judicial independence surrendering to public outrage? And what if even the highest court upholds the magistrate's ruling? Would the people accept the outcome, admit they were wrong, put away their anger and say sorry to the magistrate for doubting his fairness? Or would it cast even more doubt on the fairness of the courts, further enraging the people?
There is really no happy ending to it all. The jailing of Bokhary would send the message that the judicial system bowed to public pressure. By not jailing her, the system would stand accused of favouritism. The funny thing is, no one seriously believes Bokhary's influential uncles, Court of Final Appeal judge Kemal Bokhary and executive councillor Ronald Arculli, applied pressure on the judge to go easy on their niece. What's even funnier is that the police, after choosing to charge Bokhary with a lighter rather than heavier offence, are now all indignant she got off. The police management says it will even support the assaulted officers should they decide to sue Bokhary.
Amina Bokhary is not really the central issue here. Nor do I think the people are angry simply because a rich girl from an influential family got lenient court treatment. They are angry because they believe Hong Kong has become too unfair a society. The Bokhary verdict simply solidified this belief, giving them another reason to vent their fury.
As I said here two weeks ago, people will now rebel against whatever they believe is evidence of an unequal society. They're turning against the elite, the business class, the tycoons and the government, which they believe sides with the powerful. It's become a class thing - us against them.
If a class war seems preposterous to you then you should mull over the words of magistrate Yuen when he refused to reverse his ruling on Bokhary: would there have been such public outrage over the compassion he showed in sentencing a mentally ill person if she was not from an elite family?
Michael Chugani is a columnist and broadcaster