The Hong Kong Social Workers’ General Union (HKSWGU) has said it is “infuriated” and “in grief” after a registered social worker was sentenced to a year in prison on Wednesday for obstructing police work during a protest last year.

See also: The perilous role of Hong Kong’s ‘battlefield’ social workers

At the Fanling Magistrates’ Courts on Wednesday, social worker Lau Ka-tung, 24, was found guilty of obstructing the work of officer Chan Pui-kit during a demonstration last July 27 in Yuen Long. Lau was accused of hindering officers from proceeding by standing in front of the cordon and using his body to strike Chan’s shield.

Lau Ka-tung. File photo: Inmediahk.net, via CC 2.0.

According to local media, acting principal magistrate Don So said it was “unreasonable” and “ridiculous” for the social worker to urge the police to slow down and keep a distance from the demonstrators. He said such a request would be the equivalent of asking police to “abandon” their duties and give up on crowd dispersal.

“No one could block police officers’ way, just like no one could hinder police from chasing robbers,” So said.

The magistrate said Lau did not leave despite a police warning. His persistence not only caused inconvenience to the officer concerned, but it “fundamentally dealt a blow” to police work, So said.

The defence argued that Lau wanted to assist communication between police and protesters, and was pushed into the cordoned area by another officer. He also tried to raise both of his hands while showing his social worker credentials. But So rejected the defence’s arguments.

Lau Ka-tung. Photo: Internet.

Lau – a member of the Reclaiming Social Work Movement – was sentenced to one year of imprisonment. The defence applied for bail as they planned to file an appeal against the sentence, but the application was denied. Lau was sent behind bars immediately.

It is the first time a social worker has been convicted and jailed for their involvement in the large-scale protests that broke out last June, originally a now-axed extradition bill.

‘We will not stop’

Some social workers formed the Battlefield Social Workers group, who volunteer to monitor police behaviour, liaise between protesters and the force, as well as provide emotional support at demonstrations.

Photo: May James/HKFP.

Hui Lai-ming, a Battlefield member and the general executive of the HKWGU, told HKFP on Thursday that she thought the sentence was disproportionate. She said Lau and other frontline social workers were registered, meaning they were trained to provide “humanitarian assistance” at demonstrations.

Hui said some social workers, herself included, have been arrested and charged for their involvement in the protests. When asked if Lau’s case would spark concerns over the role of frontline social workers, Hui said they would remain undeterred.

“We are worried, but we will not stop doing what we do because of it,” she said.

The HKSWGU also slammed the conviction as “unfair” and said the sentence was “surprisingly harsh.” The union said the case showed that respect for the social work profession has been “continuously devastated,” adding it was a conviction of the entire industry.

Hui Lai-ming. File photo: Inmediahk.net, via CC 2.0.

“On one hand, we are infuriated, on the other hand we are in grief and [feel helpless]…The conviction and sentence reflected that the court did not consider the role of social workers to mediate clashes at protest scenes,” the union wrote on Facebook.

Hui said Lau’s conviction could cost him his registration. According to the Social Workers Registration Board (SWRB), a registered social worker is seen as breaching disciplinary guidelines if he or she is convicted of any offence – punishable with imprisonment – which “may bring the social work profession into disrepute.”

In response to HKFP’s enquiry, the SWRB said that, when a registered social worker is convicted, the person should inform the board as soon as reasonably practicable, adding it would not comment on individual cases.

“The Board would then deliberate and discuss the merits of individual cases about the registration matter,” it said.

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Kelly Ho

Kelly Ho has an interest in local politics, education and sports. She formerly worked at South China Morning Post Young Post, where she specialised in reporting on issues related to Hong Kong youth. She has a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Hong Kong, with a second major in Politics and Public Administration.