People Power lawmaker Albert Chan Wai-yip apologised "unconditionally" yesterday for suggesting an Eastern Court magistrate had a "political mission".
The apology followed a warning by the magistrate, Joseph To Ho-shing, that Chan might be charged if he refused to admit he was wrong.
The episode arose from a verbal exchange between To and Chan in court on March 12 during a hearing after which Chan and party colleague Wong Yuk-man were convicted of organising an unlawful assembly in 2011.
They are due to be sentenced for the offence on Tuesday and could lose their Legislative Council seats if they are given a month or more in prison and if two thirds of legislators endorse a motion to remove them.
An audio clip of To and Chan's conversation was played in court yesterday. In the clip, To suggested Wong finish his oral submission for the hearing the next day.
Chan objected, saying: "I have never heard a judge [ask defendants] to finish their submission in one to two days … [You wouldn't do so] unless you have a political mission to fulfil." To said he had made the request only because the pair had not asked for more time for their submission.
In court yesterday, barrister Randy Shek, for Chan, said the lawmaker would "retract what he said and apologise if it caused anyone to feel that his remarks put the court or judicial system into question".
But To rejected the "conditional" apology, suggesting Chan should provide evidence of what the political mission was, who gave it to the court and why.
Chan decided to apologise "unconditionally" after a 10-minute break, saying that his "offensive remark was based on misunderstanding" about the court's independence. To said he would not lodge any charge against him.
Outside the court, Chan denied backing down.
He said that as the magistrate had been "extremely negative" and would not accept "any indication, allegation or even question about judicial independence … I put forward an unconditional apology to indicate my support of judicial independence".
The court had earlier heard that Wong and Chan had rallied scores of people on July 1, 2011 to continue protesting after an annual march organised by the Civil Human Rights Front. The contentious rally was headed for the chief executive's residence at Government House, but scuffles broke out near the Bank of China Tower in Central. Police officers used pepper spray to restrain the crowd, and arrested 138 people, including Chan and Wong.
Wong said yesterday that the assembly was an act of civil obedience because the Public Order Ordinance, which he broke, was "an autocratic government's tool to suppress peaceful protests".