A Hong Kong police commander overseeing a 2019 rally at the centre of a high-profile court case acknowledged on Friday that he had withdrawn all officers at the scene after the event began in order to prioritise the protection of police premises from potential attacks by radical protesters.
Superintendent Simon Cheung Wing-kan made the admission during the trial of media tycoon Jimmy Lai Chee-ying and six former opposition legislators who stand accused of organising and taking part in an unauthorised assembly on Hong Kong Island on August 18, 2019.
The prosecution has accused the seven suspects of turning an approved assembly protesting against the now-withdrawn extradition bill at Victoria Park into an illegal march to Central under the pretext of crowd control.
Defence lawyers, however, have argued that the accused were merely leading participants at the rally out of the jam-packed park to alleviate overcrowding. Even if the court found their actions constituted a de facto procession, they said, the seven could be reasonably excused given the absence of police when the size of the crowd reached the park’s maximum capacity.
Superintendent Cheung, then the commander of North Point police division, told the court on Friday that he had made no plans as to crowd control measures inside Victoria Park after the rally started at 3pm that day, even though the force anticipated some 300,000 people would take part – nearly double the park’s estimated maximum capacity of 160,000.
Cheung said his team needed to prepare for possible attacks at police buildings, pointing to previous protests that year which had started peacefully but later descended into chaos.
He also admitted he had declined to temporarily close off parts of the roads outside the park in case people overflowed into the streets, as the move could have had a serious impact on traffic and might have encouraged protesters to occupy thoroughfares instead of joining the assembly.
The District Court-level trial – which is being held at West Kowloon Court to accommodate a larger audience – is the first arising from an unauthorised assembly in which the defence contests the constitutionality of the offence. The outcome could have an impact on cases involving five other unauthorised protests.
The court on Friday heard the actions of the 243 police officers deployed on August 18 were governed by an operational order drafted by Inspector James Tang Chun-ho and endorsed by Cheung two days prior.
The order stipulated the principle of “minimum presence and maximum reserve” to avoid conflicts with protesters at the park, and withheld most of the unit’s resources in preparation for emergencies.
No arrest actions were to be taken without the permission of the commanders at the scene unless circumstances dictated that quick and resolute responses were required, according to the order.
The order also specified that three platoons comprising 100 North Point police division officers would first be deployed in the park, but upon commencement of the rally, would retreat to sensitive police premises to guard against “any possible outbreak of public disorder situations”.
Questioning Cheung on the stand, Lai’s counsel, Edwin Choy Wai-bond SC, said: “It was a deliberate decision not to implement any crowd management measures at the park. It was the decision made by you.”
The superintendent replied: “This was not in the plan. Correct.”
Lai’s co-defendants are former lawmakers Martin Lee Chu-ming, “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung, Lee Cheuk-yan, Albert Ho Chun-yan, Cyd Ho Sau-lan and Margaret Ng Ngoi-yee.
The trial continues before District Judge Amanda Woodcock on Monday.
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