A Hong Kong social worker jailed for a year for obstructing police at a 2019 anti-government protest has seen his conviction upheld but his sentence trimmed to eight months following a partially successful appeal at the High Court.
Lau Ka-tung vowed to clear his name at the Court of Final Appeal after the lower appellate court on Tuesday found “apparent” evidence he had taken part in an unlawful assembly when he stood in front of a police cordon in a bid to convince officers to halt a clearance operation.
Lau, who turned 25 on Sunday, was returned to jail after having been free on bail while awaiting the appeal’s result.
Get the latest insights and analysis from our Global Impact newsletter on the big stories originating in China.
He raised an open palm and one finger in his other hand after the hearing – signifying “five demands, not one less”, a slogan widely chanted during the protests – before being taken away by prison officers.
The young activist, who was among some 20 social workers arrested during the 2019 protests, was accused of intentionally delaying police movement in Yuen Long for a few minutes by blocking an officer’s path on July 27, 2019, when tens of thousands defied a police ban and rallied in the New Territories town.
Defence lawyers argued Lau was merely discharging his duties as a social worker at the scene, calling for officers to slow down in fear they might cause a stampede if they suddenly charged towards protesters.
He was convicted of obstructing a police officer last summer by Principal Magistrate Don So Man-lung, who ruled the presence of social workers at the scene led to chaos and danger, and “fundamentally dealt a blow” to police work.
Those remarks drew criticisms from lawmakers and social work unions, who argued the presence of social workers at protest scenes was essential in safeguarding demonstrators’ rights and safety.
In rejecting Lau’s appeal against his conviction on Tuesday, High Court Justice Albert Wong Sung-hau cited “common sense” in finding Lau had obstructed police, adding that the social worker could not have genuinely believed protesters would leave on their own accord had police given them the chance to do so.
Such a finding was supported, Wong said, by the fact that Lau had only urged police to stop advancing without calling for the gathering crowd to disperse and avoid clashing with officers.
The judge also expressed reservation over Lau’s claim he was simply acting as a social worker at the scene. Instead, he found the activist himself must have taken part in the illegal public meeting as he wore a black shirt emblazoned with the words: “Revolt by social workers, no crime for resistance”.
“The key is whether, judging by common sense and the overall circumstances at the time, the appellant’s action constituted an obstruction to police. The answer is a definite ‘yes’,” Wong said.
“The appellant is a social worker, and so are those who were with him at the time. I do not deny [the possibility] that they might have … believed they should do something because of their status, but even so, the evidence only showed that their actions were targeting one group of people, and it is difficult to say they had a full grasp of the role that social workers should take.”
However, Wong held that an eight-month prison sentence was enough to reflect Lau’s culpability in the case, as he had not acted violently or caused immediate danger to police officers.
Former opposition lawmaker Shiu Ka-chun, a social worker, said he was “distraught” at the ruling, as he believed the new jail term was still excessive.
“Everyone can see that Ka-tung did not do anything at the scene, nor did he carry any offensive weapons or chant slogans,” Shiu said. “It’s difficult for us not to question whether the rule of law is dead.”
More from South China Morning Post: