A Kazakhstani student on trial in Hong Kong for allegedly igniting a petrol bomb at a protest two years ago has been acquitted after the judge suggested police might have fabricated the allegation.
The District Court cleared Abilkaiyr Nukpi of attempted arson on Monday, as the judge pointed to inconsistencies in the testimony of the acting sergeant who apprehended the 20-year-old, as well as the account provided by the police officer responsible for handling the evidence.
District Judge Sham Siu-man said the arresting officer, surnamed Yim, had failed to explain why he made no attempt at the scene to recover the lighter allegedly used by the defendant, which was an “important piece of evidence” in the prosecution’s case.
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Similar concerns were also raised over the testimony of the exhibit officer, who initially said in his written statement the sergeant found the orange lighter in question in the defendant’s backpack, but when in the witness box claimed the sergeant did not know about the lighter’s existence at the scene.
Sham said the change of stance might be an attempt by the exhibit officer to back up Yim, adding he found no merit in either officers’ testimony.
“Could [it] be true [that] no lighter [was] ever [found] in the backpack? Judging from the evidence of the sergeant, it was possible,” the judge said.
“Given the evidence as it is, the court is unsure of who to believe and what to make of the orange lighter. Consequently, the court cannot accept that the orange lighter was found in the defendant’s backpack.”
The alleged incident followed large-scale protests in Yau Ma Tei and Tsim Sha Tsui, amid violent clashes between police and protesters occupying nearby Polytechnic University.
Nukpi, a Baptist University student at the time of the alleged offence, was said to be among 300 protesters assembling at the junction of Nathan Road and Jordan Road at around 2am on November 18, 2019.
The prosecution alleged he had tried to ignite a firebomb with a lighter four to five times before he was subdued. Initially accusing the student of possessing an offensive weapon with intent, punishable by two years behind bars, prosecutors later stepped up their allegation and pressed ahead with a heftier charge of attempted arson with intent, with a maximum jail term of seven years at the District Court.
The trial heard there was “no recovery of the lighter from the scene”, but the exhibit officer was said to have found the orange lighter at the bottom of the student’s backpack almost two hours after the arrest.
Defence counsel Lawrence Lok Ying-kam SC said the petrol bomb was passed to his client by other unidentified protesters moments before police pushed him to the ground. Lok said his client’s alleged attempts to ignite the bomb were fabrication by police to justify the more serious allegation.
In Monday’s verdict, Sham found the defence case “tallied with what [the sergeant] did”, as the latter only arrested Nukpi on suspicion of carrying the firebomb and “did not bother” to seize the lighter in question at the scene.
“It remains a major concern for the court … If what [the sergeant] said about ‘seeing the defendant trying to [set] the petrol bomb [alight] with a lighter’ was true, how come no attempts were made to locate [such] an important piece of evidence?” Sham said.
“The prosecution failed to prove the case against the defendant … beyond all reasonable doubt.”
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