Bokhary case ended with the right result

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 18 January, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 18 January, 2011, 12:00am

Such is the controversy surrounding the case of Amina Mariam Bokhary, the niece of one of our top judges, that her lawyer described her in court - ironically - as public enemy No 1 and blamed her predicament on a media campaign of 'character assassination'. The hearing resulted in Bokhary being jailed for six weeks for breaching five of seven conditions of her probation. To many in the community, that is where she should have been already after being convicted last August for the third time in eight years of assaulting a police officer.

Ultimately they got what they wanted. Despite her lawyer's pleas, she can hardly complain. She had been given chance after chance by the courts but did not even manage to comply with the conditions of a probation order that affronted some people with its leniency. They would argue that it was wrong in principle of the prosecution not to ask the Court of Appeal to impose a higher sentence. But the end result is similar.

That said, Bokhary is not solely responsible for the controversy that originated from a collision between her car and a tour bus last January, resulting in convictions for careless driving and refusing a breath test as well as on the assault charge. She had escaped jail previously when fined HK$1,000 and ordered to perform community service after assaulting a policewoman and a taxi driver in 2008 and when fined HK$9,000 for assaulting a policeman after an argument with her boyfriend in 2002. Sparing her a jail sentence again, the magistrate cited a bipolar disorder and said she was a sick person rather than a bad one. But he also noted her 'good background, a well-off family, good education and outstanding academic achievement'. These words antagonised the public, who felt they meant that these advantages would win leniency from the courts. A stable family background is a legitimate factor in considering whether offenders can be rehabilitated without sending them to jail. Unfortunately, that point was not spelt out, leaving a different impression in some people's minds.

This came at a time when public concerns about the city's increasing wealth gap, pollution and lavish government spending on controversial infrastructure had fuelled an atmosphere of discontent. Robust public debate about the case was understandable. It eventually led to hundreds of people protesting in the streets. But this kind of reaction is a little worrying. The courts must be free to decide cases fairly, in accordance with the law, without any influence or pressure. In this case, it seems the court came to a decision at odds with the community. The end result, however, appears to be the right one, if only because Bokhary violated the terms of the probation order, most seriously by failing to spend 90 days at the Betty Ford alcohol rehabilitation centre in the US. Sadly, this suggests the court was wasting its time.

It is good, however, that the prosecution challenged the one-year's driving licence suspension, along with a HK$5,000 fine, for failing to provide a specimen for a breath test. The appeal court increased the period of suspension to three years. This reflects reduced tolerance in the community for drink-driving, and the recent amendments to the Road Traffic Ordinance that sharply raised the minimum penalties for this crime and for refusing a test. The latter offence warrants severe deterrent penalties if the former is to mean anything. Far from deterring people who can afford to pay them, reliance on fines can encourage them to take criminal risks and defy the intent of the law.