Hong Kong’s minister in charge of the civil service has spoken in favour of suspending subordinates who are under criminal investigation.

Joshua Law, the Secretary for Civil Service, on Tuesday was asked by lawmakers whether it would be unfair to suspend civil servants suspected of committing a criminal offence, especially when Hong Kong police have been accused of arresting people indiscriminately over months of protests.

joshua law
Secretary for Civil Service Joshua Law. Photo: GovHK.

Pro-democracy lawmakers Cheng Chung-tai and Lam Cheuk-ting also said that such a policy would go against the presumption of innocence, as the civil servant would be suspended before a final determination is reached on whether they are guilty.

The topic entered into the public spotlight after it was revealed that some government employees had been arrested over the course of the city’s pro-democracy movement, which began in June. Law on Tuesday said that “only an extremely small number” of civil servants were arrested in connection with the protests, but did not give an exact figure.

Law defended the policy of suspending arrested civil servants because the employees must be “law-abiding, dedicated, impartial and politically neutral,” he said.

“It would be difficult for the community to accept if a civil servant arrested for his suspected participation in illegal activities could still return to work as normal and continue to exercise the powers and functions of his office,” he told the legislature.

“Generally speaking… the government will, having regard to the public interest, interdict a civil servant who is under inquiry or investigation for serious misconduct or criminal offence, or that judicial or disciplinary proceedings have been or are to be taken against him.”

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File photo: May James/HKFP.

The policy applies to anyone under police investigation even if they have been unconditionally released and are no longer on bail.

The practice came under fire at a Legislative Council question-and-answer session, with Democratic Party lawmaker Lam Cheuk-ting saying: “There are many cases of police indiscriminately arresting people and charging people… you can’t rule out that the police may have arrested the wrong person.”

But Law said that suspending a government employee was not a “disciplinary punishment,” therefore it does not presume guilt. He added that if the civil servant were to be cleared of suspicion, they would be reinstated and the government would compensate any lost earnings.

Some civil servants have publicly declared their unhappiness with the Hong Kong government and aligned themselves with protesters. A rally for civil servants in August drew up to 40,000 people, while hundreds have signed online petitions criticising the administration and the police for its handling of the political crisis.

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Photo: May James/HKFP.

Meanwhile, under the management of the Hong Kong Police Force, a traffic cop who drove his motorbike into a crowd of protesters last month resumed active duty after a brief suspension despite still being under investigation for the incident.

Asked why the motorbike cop was not suspended from active duty, Police Commissioner Chris Tang said that his reinstatement was not a sign of “leniency,” adding that a police officer can continue to work while being investigated.

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Holmes Chan is a reporter at Hong Kong Free Press. He covers local news with a focus on law, politics, and social movements. He studied law and literature at the University of Hong Kong.