Whatever the case, threats against judges are simply unacceptable

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 04 August, 2015, 1:05am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 04 August, 2015, 8:57am

For judges to be able to rule without fear or favour is the bedrock of judicial independence. It is therefore disturbing when a magistrate said he felt threatened following the conviction of four people for their roles in a controversial protest. The matter may constitute contempt of court and is being followed up by the police and the Department of Justice. The trial, presided by deputy magistrate Michael Chan Pik-kiu, has attracted much interest in the city and overseas, and not only because it involved clashes between the police and protesters. Of particular concern was a 30-year-old woman convicted of assaulting a male chief inspector with her breasts, even though he suffered no injuries. She was sentenced by Chan to three months and 15 days in jail. She and three co-defendants, who were found guilty of assaulting or obstructing the police, were granted bail pending an appeal.

That a woman is guilty of assaulting a man with her breasts has raised many eyebrows. Incredulous as it sounds, the ruling took into account the full circumstances. The woman shouted "indecent assault" as she pushed the inspector's arm with her breasts. Chan said her actions made the case serious, as it would have an adverse impact on other protesters at the scene.

Confrontations during protests are increasingly common. Chan rightly expressed concerns that cases of protesters assaulting police had become frequent. Without a deterrent sentence, the public would be led to believe that assaulting police officers was a trivial matter, he said.

The "breast assault" trial has understandably aroused intense debate. Since the four people in the anti-parallel traders protest in March were convicted four weeks ago, social media has been awash with comments, some of which border on personal attacks and insults against the magistrate. The courtroom was packed with supporters of the defendants when the sentences were handed down last Thursday. Emotions ran equally high outside the court building, with people chanting abusive slogans and brandishing placards. Some 200 people protested against the convictions on Sunday.

Public discussion of court rulings is part and parcel of Hong Kong's free speech. The debate is likely to be renewed when the case goes before a higher court. While people can continue to express their opinion, they have to do so within the law. Ultimately, it is for the higher court to decide whether there was any flaw in the ruling. It is imperative that judges can continue to make rulings without pressure and threats.