LETTER OF THE LAW
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Mong Kok riot: a galaxy of options for justice minister in pressing further charges

Suspects could find themselves charged with criminal intimidation, grievous bodily harm and even attempted murder when they return to court

PUBLISHED : Monday, 21 March, 2016, 4:37pm
UPDATED : Monday, 21 March, 2016, 7:14pm

By the time the Mong Kok riot suspects return to court next month, the secretary for justice, Rimsky Yuen Kwok-keung, has said “we might need to add further charges”.

Yuen takes the matter “very seriously” and, evidence permitting, apart from riot he has a galaxy of potential charges at his disposal. Of course, there must be a reasonable prospect of conviction before he can bring further charges, and they should also reflect the alleged criminality of the suspects, particularly the violence.

If the people who allegedly attacked the 90 police officers and five journalists, causing facial injuries and fractured bones, can be identified, Yuen will need to consider a charge of wounding with intent to cause grievous bodily harm, depending on any injuries.

Whether a more serious charge of attempted murder is available for those who allegedly assaulted the police officer on the ground will depend on the evidence, the circumstances, and the inferences to be drawn from a fast-moving situation.

Lesser offences, such as assault occasioning actual bodily harm, unlawful wounding, assaulting police officers acting in the execution of their duty and common assault, provide prosecutors with possible fallback charges, if more serious offences are problematic.

As regards the people who allegedly set fire to litter bins and then started fires in 22 different places, Yuen must decide whether, considering the damage, he can mount prosecutions for arson.

If it can be ascertained who allegedly threatened the journalists and cameramen as they covered the disturbances, and prevented them from going about their lawful business, the culprits may be prosecuted for criminal intimidation.

If, as seems likely, the disturbances were not spontaneous but planned, those responsible may be charged with sedition which, contrary to popular belief, is an existing offence

During the disturbances, some people reportedly damaged property, including police vehicles and sign posts, and, according to the secretary for security, Lai Tung-kwok, they also dug up 2,000 bricks from 110 square metres of pavement. Criminal damage, therefore, appears to be the tailor-made charge for those responsible, provided their involvement can be established.

As the disturbances developed, some people allegedly deployed bricks, broken bottles, sharpened bamboo sticks and even gas cans in order to make their case. Where possible, therefore, Yuen will need to consider charging the suspects with unlawful possession of offensive weapons in a public place.

If, as is possible, the disturbances were not spontaneous but planned, those responsible may be charged with sedition which, contrary to popular belief, is an existing offence, independent of the Basic Law’s Article 23.

The Crimes Ordinance defines a seditious intention as “as an intention to incite persons to violence”, and sedition, therefore, potentially covers anyone who orchestrated the violence. Sedition must, in law, be charged within six months of the offence, so Yuen must not delay.

Given the gravity of the possible offences, some punishable with life imprisonment, Yuen will also need to consider transferring the cases to the High Court, with its wide sentencing jurisdiction.

Grenville Cross SC is a criminal justice analyst