A construction worker has been sentenced to 160 hours of community service for spreading online rumours about police sexually assaulting women held at a detention centre during the social unrest in Hong Kong last year.
Poon Yung-wai was spared jail at Eastern Court on Tuesday, having served two weeks in remand following his conviction on one count of incitement that stemmed from four Facebook posts he published between September 19 and 21 in 2019.
The 38-year-old man was the first person to face criminal prosecution over posting provocative messages on social media since anti-government protests erupted in June last year over the now-withdrawn extradition bill.
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Prosecutors accused Poon of inciting online users to besiege San Uk Ling Holding Centre by making false allegations against police – that officers had molested and raped female protesters detained at the 80,000 sq ft facility.
Situated in the remote Man Kam To area near the city’s border with mainland China, the centre had been temporarily used to house 182 arrested protesters between August 5 and September 2 last year.
Critics had voiced concern over the treatment of protesters at the centre, and police confirmed last year that 30 protesters arrested during an August 11 demonstration and detained there were later sent to hospital, but denied officers had abused the detainees.
Lo Su-vui, a Hospital Authority executive, later said the 30 were sent to North District Hospital between August 12 and 13, two with fractured bones.
Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor announced one month later that police would stop using San Uk Ling to house arrested protesters in light of “public concern”.
The court heard that under the pseudonym “Kim Jong-un” – North Korea’s leader – Poon claimed to an open Facebook group with more than 50,000 members that he learned about the sexual assaults in San Uk Ling from a police source, before calling for people to surround the facility and “rescue the martyrs”. He did not suggest a date and time for the proposed unlawful gathering.
In a police interview after his arrest, Poon admitted fabricating the story as he was angry with the perceived ill-treatment of protesters, as well as over a rash of suicides during the unrest that he found to be mysterious.
He denied inciting people to join an illegal gathering outside San Uk Ling, saying he simply wanted to call for help to find lawyers for the arrestees in subsequent legal proceedings.
But in her ruling last month, Magistrate Peony Wong Nga-yan found that defence unreasonable, and convicted Poon on one count of incitement to take part in an unlawful assembly, punishable by two years’ in prison at the magistrates’ court level. An alternative charge of incitement to take part in an unauthorised assembly was left on file.
Defence lawyer Jacqueline Lam said in mitigation that her client had deeply reflected on his “irresponsible” behaviour, adding he had deleted his social media accounts and sought help from social workers after his arrest.
Wong said while the offences were serious in nature, she opted to give the defendant one more chance, as Poon’s bogus claims had generated little response online and the proposed siege at San Uk Ling never materialised because Poon did not set out details in his post.
“Incitement is a very serious offence, but in sentencing, the court is still required to look at the actual circumstances of each case,” the magistrate said.
“There were substantial numbers of people who disagreed with or were sceptical about the defendant’s claims. It may be because the claims were apparently exaggerated and false that they did not have a real impact.”
Wong accepted the probation officer’s recommendation and sentenced Poon to community service, after considering his previously clear criminal record, genuine remorse and support from his family.