Up the creek with Carrie the crocodile

June 14, 2019 10:47
A police officer holds a sign to warn demonstrators in Hong Kong on June 12 amid a protest against a proposed extradition bill. Photo: Reuters

I am an ex-soldier. In Singapore my battalion of Gurkhas worked together with the Singapore Police to control rioters, which is where I gained my experience in crowd control by disciplined forces.

I am a barrister. I have defended police officers in some of the highest profile prosecutions at the Central Criminal Court.

When I first came to Hong Kong, I represented the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) on a number of occasions, including the prosecution of a deputy director of public prosecutions, Warwick Reid.

That is part of the background to my perspective of the events that took place in Hong Kong on Wednesday this week.

There was a very obvious absence of command and control by senior police officers.

The tactics adopted by police officers at the scene were provocative, taunting the protesters to attack them.

If you are dressed in body armor, gas masks and helmets, armed with batons, pepper spray and firearms loaded with rubber bullets, it is no contest against unarmed civilians.

I do not condone the use of violence by anyone except in self-defence and even then it has to be reasonably proportionate to the perceived threat.

Nor do I have any truck with protesters who initiate violence against persons or property, no matter how strongly held their convictions.

But let us examine for a moment the description "Disciplined Force". The word 'force' combines both a body of individuals as well as the potential for the use of physical compulsion.

Any such force, acting in concert, is potentially threatening. This is where the defining adjective comes into play, 'disciplined'.

Discipline is both external and internal. But in the sense that it is applied to a Police Force, it connotes people who are trained to conduct themselves in accordance with set rules and regulations.

Those rules are not special to the Police, they apply to all citizens because, as is often forgotten, the Hong Kong Police Force is a citizen police force not a para-military force.

The use of force must always be proportionate to the threat or danger against which it is deployed.

Wednesday the 12th of June witnessed a number of examples of grossly disproportionate use of force by men whose training is intended to instill in them the self-discipline to act within legal boundaries.

There can be no possible justification for the savage, indeed I would describe it as frenetic, beating of a young, unarmed woman, by several officers using their batons even when she was lying helpless on the ground. Not one single officer tried to stop them.

Another extraordinary incident was the manner in which a non-Chinese man, doing nothing than sit on a low wall, had pepper sprayed directly into his face again and again and again as though he was some form of vermin.

Neither of these two victims posed any threat whatsoever to the officers who surrounded them and treated them in this bestial manner.

I have been caught up in rioting crowds in Calcutta and felt the hysteria that grips men so that they think that their individuality is merged into the mass psyche, providing them with a group anonymity that shelters them from individual responsibility.

That same group hysteria is what overtook those policemen.

Shorn of the discipline to which they are supposed to be trained to respond, they become nothing more than brutal thugs.

I am fully aware of how threatening an angry crowd can be. But managing such a body of people demands skill and technique.

One of my best friends once faced down a furious crowd that was about to burn down an airline's offices. Just one man, on his own.

The Police officers deployed around the Legco building on June 12 exhibited none of the technique or skills required to manage a massive body of peaceful protesters. To the contrary, they taunted them, inciting them to attack.

In my opinion, if it was considered necessary to clear the streets, the use of tear gas was acceptable.

What was manifestly not acceptable was the use of so-called rubber bullets. As the British medical journal, the Lancet, reported: "This type of inaccurate ammunition … makes it difficult or impossible to avoid severe injuries to vulnerable body regions such as the head, neck, and upper torso, leading to substantial mortality, morbidity, and disability".

As a crude projectile fired from a firearm they are inherently dangerous because it is impossible to aim them accurately.

French researchers examined six patients who were treated for rubber bullet wounds. Five of them had severe facial injuries necessitating long-term hospitalization and two-to-three step surgical treatments.

Since the officers on site were already armed with firearms capable of discharging rubber bullets, their use must have been authorized in principle. One has to wonder what the terms of that authorization were that resulted in them being used indiscriminately against unarmed protesters.
Another appalling incident captured on video shows a young man hit full in the face by a tear gas canister.

Reasonable use of force?

Proportionate use of force?

Disciplined use of force?

The Police Force should not be perceived to be the enemy of the people in a jurisdiction subject to the rule of law, even in a quasi-democracy like Hong Kong.

Plainly, the directions came from the top. Why else would the Police suddenly start to stop and search passengers at the MTR Station on Tuesday evening, using the preposterous excuse that they only searched suspicious looking people when plainly they had no legal cause to do so?

Those responsible for the constabulary's excesses on June 12, from the Secretary for Security and Commissioner of Police down, must be held responsible for the injuries sustained by innocent victims. That is what the rule of law demands.

Principal responsibility, however, rests with the lachrymose crocodile Carrie Lam with her fixation on pushing ahead with legislation which deals a fatal wound to the legal integrity of Hong Kong as propounded in the one country two systems of the Basic Law.

Tung Chee-hwa, whatever his shortcomings, was a man of some principle. Hong Kong's first chief executive at least knew when to quit, when his leg ached. O dies O mores.

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King's Counsel