Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam hits back at critics ‘politicising’ jail term for activist Edward Leung
Chief executive acknowledges that people hold different views on Leung’s six-year sentence but says that is no reason to attack legal system
Critics of the jail sentence imposed on activist Edward Leung Tin-kei over his role in the 2016 Mong Kok riot were politicising the issue and harming Hong Kong’s rule of law, the city’s leader said on Tuesday.
Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor was responding to comments criticising the High Court’s decision on Monday to jail Leung for six years for rioting and assaulting police in one of the city’s worst outbreaks of civil unrest in decades.
The sentence for Leung, 27, one of the faces of the city’s independence movement, was the second most severe punishment handed to a Hong Kong protester since public order laws were introduced in the 1960s. His co-defendant, Lo Kin-man, 31, was jailed for seven years for rioting.
Former Hong Kong governor Chris Patten on Monday said he was disappointed to see the “vaguely drafted” Public Order Ordinance being used “politically” to place harsh sentences on activists – a concern echoed by politicians from the city’s pro-democracy camp.
Lam on Tuesday acknowledged that people held different views on Leung’s sentence.
“Everyone can express their views, but they should not … criticise and say that the court has made a political judgment, or say the law was used politically to give heavy sentences to pro-democracy activists,” she said.
Without naming names, Lam also criticised individuals for “harming” the judiciary with their comments, which she said could be “politically motivated”.
“If their stances are not compatible with our decision to prosecute or with the court’s judgment, they want to destroy the whole legal system,” she said.
Some people said favourable court rulings were evidence of “judicial independence” while branding unfavourable ones political, she added.
While Lam admitted that the Hong Kong government had its shortcomings, she said young people should not break the law in the pursuit of social justice.
“Any government will having shortcomings, but this is not an excuse to break the law, assault the police or disrupt social harmony,” Lam said.
Senior Counsel Alan Leong Kah-kit, of the opposition Civic Party, said the judge showed a lack of empathy in failing to take into account that Leung had acted in pursuit of his ideals and not personal interests.
Lam, however, slammed those who “romanticised” illegal acts and those who made calls for civil disobedience, again without naming names.
But Benny Tai Yiu-ting, a leader of the pro-democracy Occupy protests of 2014, said on Tuesday that the presiding judge might have “expressed pro-order sentiment” in Leung’s case and failed to give sufficient weight to the motive that triggered the protest in the first place. The riot was sparked when people came to the defence of unlicensed street hawkers, who were being removed from the street by officers from the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department.
“Their mentality is pro-establishment. It’s very natural for judges to consider order as some kind of overriding concern in some cases,” Tai told a gathering at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club.
Tai said the city’s common law system provides sufficient room for judges to consider why a person disrupts social order and the legitimacy of the law, but sometimes judges do not accord that leeway to activists.
“I’m not saying the judge [in Leung’s case] is wrong...We can have judges putting less concern on the order, but more [emphasis] on the legitimacy of the order and the motivation of the offender," he said.
Democratic Party founding chairman Martin Lee Chu-ming, a barrister, said he found it “odd” the judge did not consider Leung’s young age during sentencing.
“I think Leung should appeal against the sentence,” he said.
Student unions from eight universities and higher institutes expressed “concern and discontent towards the oppressive and unreasonable sentences” in a joint statement, but pledged to remain resilient in the fight against the Chinese government.
Echoing a similar call from Patten, the student unions argued that the definition of riot was not sufficiently different from the lesser offence of unlawful assembly, and urged the government to review the law.