Occupy Central

Prosecuting large numbers of Occupy activists 'not in public interest'

Former chief prosecutor warns against trying to convict large numbers of protesters, saying it would clog up the courts and be unpopular

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 02 August, 2014, 3:38am
UPDATED : Monday, 04 August, 2014, 5:29pm

Public prosecutors would be acting against the public interest if they brought each and every Occupy Central protester to court instead of focusing their efforts on the "ringleaders", a former chief prosecutor said.

To do so could clog up the courts for years and would only generate more social sympathy, if not demonstrations, in support of the civil disobedience movement, said Grenville Cross SC.

Prosecution, he reiterated, was "a sanction of last resort".

It should not apply to all arrested protesters even if enough evidence was found, said Cross, who ended 12 years as director of public prosecutions in 2009.

In response, the Department of Justice said its paramount consideration was to "maintain the rule of law and to act in the best interest of Hong Kong".

In any prosecutions, the department said, "relevant considerations include whether the available evidence supports a reasonable prospect of conviction and, if so, whether it is in the public interest to prosecute".

Past protests have seen only a handful of those arrested being charged.

But Occupy has stoked more than its fair share of antagonism. Uncertainty shrouds the fate of its participants after not only Hong Kong, but also Beijing officials, fired off fierce pre-emptive criticisms one after another, displaying a rare hard-line stance against any local demonstration.

Business leaders, including Asia's richest man Li Ka-shing, Lee Shau-kee of Henderson Land and Peter Woo Kwong-ching of Wharf (Holdings), have also spoken out against it.

Occupy organisers are eyeing a 10,000-strong sit-in to block thoroughfares in the business centre if Beijing sets guidelines on Hong Kong's chief executive election in 2017 that fall short of international standards on democracy. Beijing's decision is expected this month.

Cross said that he expected prosecutors and police to tread cautiously, "bearing in mind that restraint has much to commend it, that formal warnings can be beneficial".

"Quite clearly, even if they [prosecutors] have enough evidence, it would not be in the public interest for the authorities to prosecute thousands of people."

If that did happen, "the judicial system would, at the very least, be seriously disrupted, and might even, in a worst-case scenario, grind to a halt".

He cited another reason: "To prosecute large numbers of people could be counterproductive, arousing sympathy for the accused, who would try to pose as martyrs.

"If the point is reached when prosecution is necessary, then the people to be prosecuted should be the ringleaders and the most culpable, rather than secondary figures and small fry."

Cross noted that in 2011 the Department of Justice charged only four of 113 people arrested during an unauthorised protest against the annual budget bill.

"To have prosecuted all 113 suspects would have been a logistical nightmare," he said. "Even if convictions had resulted, the sentences would have been light, and not such as to justify a prosecution on such a scale."

Occupy organiser Benny Tai Yiu-ting, who is also a University of Hong Kong legal scholar, agreed with Cross' views.

Joe Chan Cho-kwong, chairman of the Junior Police Officers' Association, said the number of arrestees eventually charged "would not affect the police's enforcement of the law".