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The trial centres on a July protest in Sheung Wan during the 2019 anti-government movement. Photo: Edmond So

Hong Kong protests: judge declines request to withdraw from riot case over ‘bias’, says defendants had lost focus

  • Twelve out of 23 defendants on trial file joint application alleging Judge Johnny Chan had interfered with cross-examination and attacked their strategies
  • Chan argues all doubt he had cast on defence was for the sake of case management and to prevent trial from overrunning
Brian Wong
A Hong Kong judge presiding over a riot trial stemming from the anti-government unrest in 2019 has hit back at defendants for “losing focus” on the case after they accused him of being biased towards the prosecution.

Twelve out of 23 defendants on trial at West Kowloon Court filed a joint application last week asking Judge Johnny Chan Jong-herng to withdraw from the proceedings on the grounds that he had prevented their lawyers from cross-examining witnesses and attacked their defence strategies, often with sarcastic remarks.

Delivering his decision on Monday, Chan, declining to recuse himself, found no issue in his own handling of the trial, and instead said the defence had lost focus on contentious matters in the case and ran the risk of dragging out proceedings.

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The application was made after 52 days of trial in relation to a disturbance in Sheung Wan on July 28, 2019, when demonstrators blocked roads and clashed with police in protest against officers’ use of force in dispersing a rally that took place a week before.

The 23 were jointly charged with one count of rioting, with two facing additional charges of assaulting a police officer and unlicensed possession of radio communications equipment.

The District Court-level trial, which was being heard in the more spacious West Kowloon Court to accommodate the large number of lawyers and spectators, centred on whether a riot had indeed occurred on the night concerned, and, if so, whether the accused were involved.

Defence lawyer Steven Kwan Man-wai, on behalf of the 12 defendants requesting a new judge, said Chan had barred the defence from questioning police witnesses over details of the time and place of events that night, thereby preventing them from establishing their case.

Kwan also accused the judge of making harsh criticisms and attacking lawyers’ professionalism by suggesting they deliberately dragged out the case for money.

First Hong Kong trial for protesters facing riot charges opens

But Chan denied the accusations on Monday, saying all doubt he had cast on the defence was for the sake of case management, as he feared the trial, initially slated to last 60 days, would overrun.

While acknowledging the question of whether a riot had taken place deserved scrutiny, Chan found it unhelpful for lawyers to persistently ask police officers giving evidence to clarify the timeline of events.

That did not mean he had prematurely turned down the defence case, the judge reiterated, adding that he had kept an open mind to the contention.

“The presiding judge cannot be blamed for ensuring questions were not repeated, were logical and focused on the crux of the issues, as well as clarifying ambiguous queries from the defence,” Chan said. “A fair-minded and informed observer must be of the view that the presiding judge has never taken matters personally.”

A prolonged trial would be detrimental to lawyers who had other commitments after the conclusion of the present case, as well as their clients who had endured enormous stress throughout the proceedings, the judge added.

The 23 were among 44 people prosecuted over the clashes in Sheung Wan. Three have been acquitted after trial, one has pleaded guilty to rioting in the incident, and two others have absconded. The remaining fifteen were set to face a 50-day trial starting June 7.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Judge denies bias, accuses defendants of ‘losing focus’