Two Hong Kong police officers handed jail terms for assaulting pro-democracy activist Ken Tsang during the 2014 Occupy protests have cleared their names, but the remaining five only won appeals against their sentences and will return to prison.
The long-awaited judgment came with the city’s embattled police force under fire for its response to recent protests against the now-suspended extradition bill and an unprecedented mob attack at Yuen Long MTR station last Sunday.
Court of Appeal vice-president Andrew Macrae and justices Ian McWalters and Jeremy Poon Shiu-chor spent eight months analysing the seven officers’ complaints that their convictions had been unsafe and their sentences, “manifestly excessive”.
The judges unanimously allowed the appeals of Constable Lau Hing-pui, and Detective Constable Wong Wai-ho, because neither were identified by witnesses in video recordings or photographs to prove their presence in the group of officers seen immediately before or after the assault. The sentences for the other five officers, who failed to overturn their convictions, will be reduced from 24 months to between 15 and 18 months.
The case had been the first time a court had found officers guilty of using excessive force while policing the 79-day civil disobedience movement, which shut down major roads as protesters called for greater democracy.
The seven officers are Chief Inspector Wong Cho-shing, 52; Senior Inspector Lau Cheuk-ngai, 33; Detective Sergeant Pak Wing-bun, 46; Constable Lau Hing-pui, 42; and detective constables Chan Siu-tan, 35, Kwan Ka-ho, 35, and Wong Wai-ho, 40.
They were found guilty in February 2017 of one count of assault occasioning actual bodily harm for attacking then Civic Party member Ken Tsang Kin-chiu, 44, who had been arrested for pouring liquid over other officers during a clearance operation in Admiralty on October 14, 2014.
News footage of Tsang curling up against the officers’ kicks, punches and baton strikes quickly circulated in 2014, making it one of the most controversial scenes from the largely peaceful protests, while the site gained infamy as the “dark corner”.
Subsequent medical examinations found the social worker sustained swelling and reddish bruises on his face, neck, shoulder, flank, chest and back.
District judge David Dufton jailed all seven officers for two years, after granting a six-month discount to factor the circumstances of the Occupy protests as well as personal factors such as the officers’ clear records, service to the community and likelihood of losing their pensions.
Chan alone was sentenced to one more month on one count of common assault for twice slapping Tsang at a police station, to be served concurrently with the longer jail term.
But all of them had been released on bail between June and August 2017 pending the outcome of these appeals against conviction and sentence, after serving between 134 and 176 days in jail.
At the appeal hearing last November, defence counsel Tim Owen QC argued the convictions were unsafe because they were based on edited footage that had not been properly authenticated.
“There is a lengthy break in continuity [of the footage], which is crucial if you’re basing the case on identification,” Owen said.
The defence lawyers demanded new sentences that would allow their clients’ immediate release, with Charlotte Draycott SC appealing to the court to consider that police officers suffer “a special harshness” in prison.
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.
Tsang was jailed for five weeks in a separate trial at Kowloon City Court over one count of assaulting police and two of resisting police.
He dropped his appeal and served time the following year, after his assailants were jailed.