Edward Leung riot sentence: too harsh, or necessary as deterrent? Legal scholars, politicians split over jail term for Hong Kong independence activist
Former Hong Kong governor Chris Patten says legislation is being used to hand out tough sentences to activists, while ex-director of public prosecutions Grenville Cross argues sending a deterrent is a duty for the city’s courts
A Hong Kong court’s decision to hand independence activist Edward Leung Tin-kei six years in jail for his role in the 2016 Mong Kok riot was a harsh sentence, legal scholars and lawmakers across the political spectrum said on Monday.
While conservative politicians argued it was necessary to create a deterrent, liberal and pro-democracy legislators said the ruling failed to take Leung’s motives into account. They called on the government to address squarely discontent among the city’s youth.
Former Hong Kong governor Chris Patten also weighed in by slamming the “vaguely drafted” Public Order Ordinance under which Leung was convicted. He said the law was open to abuse.
“It is disappointing to see that the legislation is now being used politically to place extreme sentences on the pan-democrats and other activists,” Patten said in a statement.
Leung, the 27-year-old poster boy for the city’s independence movement, was jailed along with co-defendant Lo Kin-man, 31, by the High Court on Monday. Lo was handed seven years in prison, the heaviest punishment so far for a participant in the 2016 riot.
Madam Justice Anthea Pang Po-kam described the unrest two years ago as “organised violence” that was extremely serious in nature.
Hong Kong activist Edward Leung, the face of city’s independence movement, jailed for six years over Mong Kok riot
It could not be mitigated by one’s political aspirations, she said.
Legal scholars and lawmakers from across the political spectrum said the punishment imposed on Leung was harsh.
“Leung was only convicted of participating in the riot and was cleared of incitement ... It is on the very heavy side to sentence him to six years,” said Professor Johannes Chan Man-mun, a former law dean at the University of Hong Kong and an expert on human rights.
“The leader of the unrest might bear a bigger responsibility, but there is no evidence in this case suggesting Leung incited the riots.”
Senior counsel Alan Leong Kah-kit, of the Civic Party, said the judge lacked empathy by failing to take into account that Leung had acted in pursuit of his ideals and not personal interests.
But Beijing-friendly lawmaker Starry Lee Wai-king, chairwoman of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, insisted it was justified, though tough.
“We cannot send a message to society that someone can breach the peace and social order in the name of pursuing his ideals,” she said.
Grenville Cross, the city’s former director of public prosecutions, also said the courts owed the public a clear duty to deter serious public disorder through sentencing.
The ruling sent a clear message that “everyone must obey the law and respect others, irrespective of their political beliefs”, he said.
And Professor Simon Young Ngai-man of the University of Hong Kong’s law school said the judge was correct to see the need for a deterrent.
Mitigation hearing begins for Mong Kok rioter Edward Leung, who veteran Hong Kong politician describes as one of his generation’s ‘finest’
“Acting for a political cause may be important if there is no violence,” he said. “But here I believe the judge found that Leung deliberately acted violently against police. My only question is whether sufficient weight was given to the personal circumstances of the offender.”
However, Patten and pan-democratic politicians feared the Public Order Ordinance had become a tool to silence dissidents.
Civic Party leader Alvin Yeung Ngok-kiu demanded a revamp of the law and called on the government to address opposition voices among the city’s youth.
Geoffrey Nice, a top barrister who led the UN trial of former Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic, also expressed concern at what he described as the use of extreme sentences as a deterrent.
“I met Edward in 2017 and was struck by his articulate, gentle, personable character, as well as his youth … I am quite unable to see that Edward’s actions warrant him spending formative years of his life in jail,” Nice said.
British member of parliament Fiona Bruce, who chairs the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission, said Leung’s sentencing should not be seen as an isolated case, but one of the many examples of the Hong Kong government “using the law to intimidate the pro-democracy movement and curtail freedom of expression”.
Cross dismissed such concerns however, and called Patten’s remarks “ignorant and ill-informed”. He said the ordinance could be struck down by the city’s courts if it indeed contravened human rights guarantees.
Hong Kong has witnessed several riots in the past, but experts said they were of limited value as legal reference points.
In 2000 unrest erupted at Hei Ling Chau drug rehabilitation centre off Lantau Island, for which participants were eventually given up to six years in jail following a government push for stiffer sentences.
Another riot took place in 1989 at Whitehead detention centre in Ma On Shan.
Leftist riots in 1967 saw participants jailed for 20 months on average.
But Chan said these precedents had limited value for the current case, as the scale, motive and atmosphere were different, and the 1967 riots took place half a century ago.