Date
21 August 2019
As social rifts deepen, the government should not expect to end the chaos and restore social order just by strongly condemning violence or escalating the use of force by the police. Photo: HKEJ
As social rifts deepen, the government should not expect to end the chaos and restore social order just by strongly condemning violence or escalating the use of force by the police. Photo: HKEJ

Police have got it all wrong about the independent inquiry

Yang Guang, a spokesman for the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office (HKMAO) of the State Council, said in a press briefing that the anti-extradition bill movement in Hong Kong has begun to show “signs of terrorism”.

This suggests that the central authorities are deeply concerned about the escalating crisis in the city, and finds it absolutely urgent to stop the violence and restore order as soon as possible.

However, it appears the SAR government is already at its wits’ end as to how to resolve the crisis, given the sheer number of protesters.

A lot of prominent public figures have called on the administration to establish an independent commission of inquiry to probe the political storm arising from the revision of the Fugitive Offenders Ordinance as a way to ease the tense social atmosphere.

The government did “ponder over” the suggestion at one point, but chose not to adopt the idea.

The HKMAO hasn’t totally ruled out the option either, but has implied that no final decision should be made on this matter until after the unrest has been put down.

The main reason the government has continued to refuse to establish an independent commission of inquiry is that the police are fiercely against it.

According to an administration figure, the police force is worried that something similar to the independent inquiry into the 2012 Lamma ferry crash may happen again.

Shortly after the maritime tragedy, which resulted in 39 deaths, the government set up an independent commission of inquiry to look into the disaster.

As a result of the investigation, So Ping-chi, then assistant director of the Marine Department, was convicted of misconduct in public office by the court, and sentenced to 16 months in jail in June 2016. So served four and a half months before being granted bail after he later applied for leave to appeal his conviction and sentence.

In November 2018, the Court of Appeal reduced his sentence to the time he had already served, and So would not have to return to jail.

The police are deeply concerned that once an independent commission of inquiry is set up, even if the purpose is just to look into the root causes and the results of the extradition bill saga, the commission would eventually go after law enforcement and that could lead to the criminal prosecution of police officers involved in the crackdown on protesters.

However, a political figure who is familiar with the Lamma ferry crash investigation has pointed out that the final report compiled by Justice Michael Victor Lunn, the then chairman of the independent commission of inquiry, actually didn’t recommend that the government hold So accountable for the accident, or take any follow-up action against him.

Although the Lunn report did indicate that So instructed his subordinates not to enforce the new law that regulated life jackets on passenger vessels, which had already come into effect five years before the accident, it wasn’t the main point of the entire report.

Yet after the Lunn commission had handed over its report to the police, the police began to thoroughly study it and decided to press charges against So for having violated the law.

In other words, the police force acted on its own initiative, rather than on the recommendations of the Lunn report, when it decided to prosecute So for misconduct in public office.

The political figure went on to say that even without an independent commission of inquiry, frontline police officers may still face criminal liability for any unlawful act in dealing with the protesters, which is what happened to retired police superintendent Frankly Chu King-wai and seven police officers, all of whom were convicted of assaults in connection with the 2014 Occupy protests.

Besides, he added, the proposed independent commission of inquiry is intended to de-escalate the ongoing tensions and find a way out of the current impasse, rather than be directed at the police alone.

As social rifts deepen, the government should not expect to end the chaos and restore social order just by strongly condemning violence or escalating the use of force by the police; any further “collateral damage” on civilians inflicted by the police could cost law enforcement its remaining bit of credibility.

That said, we believe establishing an independent commission of inquiry is definitely one of the options on the table that can break the current political impasse in our city.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Aug 13

Translation by Alan Lee with additional reporting

[Chinese version 中文版]

– Contact us at [email protected]

JC/CG

Columnist of Hong Kong Economic Journal.

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