Having practised criminal law in Hong Kong for 40 years and defended individuals accused of a catalogue of crimes, ranging from massive fraud to the most heinous crimes of violence, I could lavishly chronicle the trials and tribulations of being a criminal barrister.
I can say that the challenges at the criminal Bar are often rewarded with the sense of triumph in seeing justice achieved when, more often than not, a conviction is returned on good evidence or the liberty of an accused is secured because the evidence is not up to the mark. In either event, there is adherence to a standard, a procedure, which people can trust and do trust. This is an important facet of our treasured rule of law.
Experience at the criminal Bar carries with it the burden of a delicate sensitivity to any ruffling of law and order. The current conflicts in our society are therefore a particular cause of pain, conflicts in which many young people, including juveniles still in secondary school, find themselves on the wrong side of the law, having committed acts of road obstruction, serious vandalism, and sometimes even physical assault.
Very often, these young people are inflicted with serious injuries in the process of arrest and thereafter. It would be hard to find any decent, sensible and law-abiding individual who champions these young people simply because he or she supports criminal acts and the flouting of the law.
But many, including large sections of the local public and numerous members of the international community, do sympathise with these young people who are prepared to forgo their own liberty, safety and even their lives to give voice to a cause supported by many to change the injustices of the current establishment, which refuses point-blank to listen and to give way.
It is worth remembering the government's ill-advised attempts to pass the much deplored extradition bill were halted only, and perversely, after many young people forcibly blocked entry into the Legislative Council due to pass the bill and engaged in violent clashes with the police. The recalcitrant stance of those who govern plays a large part in sowing the seeds of violence.
Violence cannot and must not be condoned, and no decent and sensible person I know condones the vandalism and violence perpetrated by those involved in the protests. Mere condemnation, however, does not help. It does not deal with the root of the problem, which lies in large part with those in government.
The problem, unfortunately, includes the police force, which executes the increasingly repressive policy of the government, and more. Since June, the release of tear gas by police has become the order of the day; it is not difficult to find footage of police beating up a protester who has been hunted down, or freely dispensing pepper spray at close range at protesters, journalists and even a legislator.
Complaints about beatings inside police stations after arrests are commonplace and have been reported by barristers who made legal visits. Yet, day in day out, one hears only official denials of abuse and wrongdoing (or excuses for inaction, as in the case of the July 21 incident in Yuen Long MTR station). The shooting of an 18-year-old on October 1 was justified by the commissioner of police as "lawful" and "reasonable" just hours after the incident, even though basic international principles demand a full inquiry and report.
None of the lawbreakers in uniform are being brought to account. Indeed, they cannot even be identified because they eschew any identification, as required by the police's own rules and guidelines. Arbitrary arrests abound. Ordinary citizens have been arrested for shouting abuse at police.
No one underestimates the difficulty of the police's job in these circumstances, but neither reason nor restraint is being shown. The standards and procedures we have taken pride in and taken for granted for so long seem to have vanished. The professionalism of the police force is also being questioned.
In such a climate, the Bar Association, of which I am a council member, has in my view rightly identified the relevant legal issues and spoken out about them.
It is not shameful to hold those armed with power, public authority and weaponry to account. Nor is pointing out that the problem is an intractable executive. This is what the Bar Association should do in defending the rule of law.
Lawrence Lok is a criminal barrister called to the Bar of England and Wales in 1978, and called to the Hong Kong Bar in 1979. He has been practising criminal law at all levels of court ever since. He has also served as a recorder of High Court, and currently serves as a member of the Bar Council
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