A Hong Kong press group and a group of citizens have won a legal challenge against the police relating to the use of officer identification at protests. In its ruling, the court also declared that the existing mechanisms for handling complaints against the force “inadequate.”

The Court of First Instance ruled that Article 3 of the Hong Kong Bill of Rights was breached when the police commissioner failed to ensure riot police and officers from the special tactical unit displayed their unique identification numbers or marks when carrying out non-covert duties.

mong kok police december 25
Photo: Viola Kam/United Social Press.

Thursday’s ruling from Judge Anderson Chow came after the court received five applications for judicial review — a legal mechanism which examines the decision-making processes of administrative bodies.

The applicants included the Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA) and Raymond Yeung, a former secondary school teacher who was blinded in one eye with an alleged police projectile during last year’s anti-extradition bill protest.

In his 66-page judgement, Chow cited the applicants as saying that they had experienced alleged police misconduct, but failed to lodge complaints to the Complaints Against Police Office (CAPO) or pursue a civil claim or private prosecution because they could not identify the officers involved.

Hong Kong’s Bill of Rights Article 3 states that “Torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment and treatment are prohibited. No one may be subjected to medical or scientific experimentation without their agreement.”

‘Strike a balance’

In October last year, police announced that frontline officers would only wear identification tags with “operational callsigns” amid criticism of police concealing their identities. The force said at the time that such policy would strike a balance between letting the public file complaints and protecting officers’ privacy in light of an increasing number of doxxing cases.

september 29 china extradition protest admiralty police arrest
Photo: May James/HKFP

Chow said the current practice did not meet the standards of effective investigation required and the requirement for unique identification to be displayed prominently, adding that such a requirement would not directly lead to the disclosure of any officer’s identity.

“The system of identification of police officers cannot be merely through the internal process of the force. Otherwise, victims of police ill-treatment would be entirely or largely at the mercy of the Force who can decide whether to take legal or disciplinary actions against the police officers responsible for the application of the ill-treatment,” he wrote.

The High Court judge also ruled in favour of the HKJA, who argued the government had failed to put in place an independent mechanism for investigating police misconduct complaints.

Chow said the existing two-tier mechanism – involving the CAPO, monitored by the Independent Police Complaints Council (IPCC), could not effectively provide an independent oversight of the police force.

May 27 2020 riot police
Hong Kong riot police. Photo: Studio Incendo.

“It is clear that CAPO is not institutionally independent of the force. Further, there is no segregation of personnel of CAPO from the rest of the Force… IPCC is institutionally and practically independent of the Force.  However, it lacks the necessary investigative powers of its own,” he said.

“[The] existing complaints mechanism involving the Complaints Against the Police Office, with oversight by the Independent Police Complaints Council, is inadequate to discharge this obligation.”

Chow’s ruling ran counter to Chief Executive Carrie Lam, who has repeatedly rejected pro-democracy protesters’ call for a truly independent police probe. The Hong Kong leader praised a 999-page report by the police watchdog in May, which cleared the force of misconduct. She said study was “fair and balanced,” “comprehensive,” “fact-based” and “weighty.”

‘Small step towards justice’

Amnesty International Hong Kong said Thursday ‘s ruling was a reminder for the Hong Kong government that it should – without delay – launch an independent investigation into what the NGO saw as an excessive use of police force during last year’s citywide protests.

november 11 Central riot police tear gas
Photo: Benjamin Yuen/United Social Press.

The group said such a probe would ensure police take “full accountability” over officers’ actions, as well as help the public rebuild trust in the force.

“This is a small step towards securing truth and justice over the widespread human rights violations which occurred during the 2019 Hong Kong protests,” said Lam Cho Ming, programme manager of Amnesty International Hong Kong.

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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.