Prison holds ‘special harshness’ for police officers lawyers tell Hong Kong court, as they plead for leniency for seven jailed over Occupy assault
- Group out on bail as they appeal sentence that one lawyer calls ‘manifestly excessive’
Seven Hong Kong policemen handed two-year jail terms for assaulting a pro-democracy activist during the 2014 Occupy protests have demanded new sentences that would allow their immediate release.
The alternatives put forward by their counsel in appeal on Wednesday ranged from shortening the jail term to suspending the rest of it, on the grounds that it had been “manifestly excessive”.
Charlotte Draycott SC said police officers suffer “a special harshness” in prison.
“To return to prison after being released has a special harshness,” she continued. “Please don’t send them back.”
But, prosecutors countered that the trial judge had rightly balanced the need for a deterrent sentence to maintain public confidence, and the officers’ personal circumstances, in reaching the right sentence for a serious offence.
“The appeal before this court should be dismissed,” they said in written submissions.
Court of Appeal vice-president Andrew Macrae, and justices Ian McWalters and Jeremy Poon Shiu-chor, have reserved their judgment.
The seven officers were released on bail between June and August last year pending the outcome of their appeals against conviction and sentence, after serving between 134 and 176 days in jail.
They were found guilty in February last year of assaulting former Civic Party member Ken Tsang Kin-chiu, 42, who had been arrested for pouring liquid over other officers during a clearance operation in Admiralty on October 14, 2014. Protesters had occupied the area as part of a civil disobedience movement calling for greater democracy in the city.
District judge David Dufton slammed the “vicious assault”, and adopted a starting point of sentence at two years and six months on each officer over their joint convictions for assault occasioning actual bodily harm, which carries a maximum penalty of three years’ imprisonment.
But, he reduced it by six months after considering the circumstances of the Occupy protests as well as personal factors, such as the officers’ clean records, service to the community, and likelihood of losing their pensions.
On Wednesday, Tim Owen QC argued that Dufton had adopted a starting point of sentence that was five times more punitive than in England and Wales, where a similar offence would have attracted a 26-week jail term against a maximum of five years.
“This is a vastly excessive starting point,” Owen said.
He also revealed that his client, Chief Inspector Wong Cho-shing, would lose a lump sum gratuity of about HK$5.67 million (US$727,500) accumulated from 30 years of service if the conviction was upheld.
Selwyn Yu SC stressed the police were under enormous pressure, following lawful orders, and instructions to clear protesters when emotions were running high.
“I urge your lordship to look at this case with mercy, even if officers acting in breach of trust should be deterred,” Yu said. “The offence was a momentary lapse of judgment, despite being a serious error of judgment.”
Joseph Tse Wah-yuen SC further pointed out that officers did not attack Tsang for no reason.
“This protester had carried out a course of conduct which was humiliating, unnecessary and provocative,” Tse said.
Peter Duncan SC argued the officers should not be required to return to custody.
“Our community in Hong Kong has moved on from the debacle that was Occupy Central,” Duncan said. “In a similar vein we submit it would be appropriate for the court to review these sentences, for these officers to move on from what is an isolated and ruinous episode, in what was otherwise an unblemished career.”
The seven officers are Chief Inspector Wong, 51; Senior Inspector Lau Cheuk-ngai, 32; Detective Sergeant Pak Wing-bun, 45; Constable Lau Hing-pui, 41; and detective constables Wong Wai-ho, 40; Chan Siu-tan, 34; and Kwan Ka-ho, 35.