No arrests were made during last year’s banned Tiananmen Massacre vigil “to avoid police-civilian conflict,” the Hong Kong senior police officer who issued the letter of objection said on Tuesday while testifying at a trial involving three pro-democracy figures.

Hong Kong media tycoon Jimmy Lai, vice-chairperson of the now-defunct Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China Chow Hang-tung, and activist Gwyneth Ho appeared in the District Court in front of Judge Amanda Woodcock, as the trial entered the second day.

candle tiananmen vigil june 4 victoria park 2020
Photo: Tam Ming Keung/United Social Press.

The trio stand accused of inciting others to participate, or take part in, an unauthorised assembly. On Monday, five democrats pleaded guilty to charges over the same prohibited rally, while 16 other defendants have been brought to court or sentenced to jail over the same case. The police cited Covid-19 health concerns when they banned the vigil last year.

Superintendent of Police Josephine Chow, who issued the letter of objection to the Alliance last year, testified in court on Tuesday as the defence sought to challenge the merit and the validity of the police ban on the annual commemoration.

Chow told the prosecutor Laura Ng that while “the police have always respected Hong Kong people’s freedom of assembly” she decided to prohibit the rally after considering “public order, public safety and the protection of other people’s rights and interests” in light of the Covid-19 epidemic situation at that time.

She also testified that, in an liaison meeting with the Alliance held on May 28, 2020, the group failed to provide the police with “any constructive or concrete proposals” detailing Covid-19 precautionary measures, and “did not respond directly” when they were asked about how they would maintain social distancing in Victoria Park.

Chow also said that she sought the Department of Health’s advice in order to understand “the risk posed to public health by a mass gathering” and that she decided to ban the rally after the department said that mass gatherings were not recommended at that time.

District Court
District Court. Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

When asked by the prosecution why the police did not deploy any officers to enter Victoria Park or make any arrests on the night of the vigil despite banning the rally, the superintendent said that it was because she wanted to “avoid police-civilian conflict,” and that the presence of police inside the park would stimulate public sentiment.

The court session was paused for lunch following the prosecution’s questioning. As the defendants left the dock, people in the public gallery stood up and waved at them, and some shouted “Mr. Lai take care” and “Boss Lai hang in there.”

Defence’s cross-examination

Senior Counsel Robert Pang, representing Lai, was the first defence counsel to cross-examine Chow after lunch. Pang said that the superintendent could have proposed “take it or leave it” conditions to the Alliance, such as making sure that all participants would wear facemasks.

Chow said in response that she had to “consider the reasonableness and proportionality” when imposing any conditions, and that she decided not to make any imposition because she “knew that the Alliance could not do so” as the group told her that they could “only appeal to the participants” to wear masks and maintain their social distance, but could make sure that the people would do so.

“Imposing conditions [upon the Alliance] cannot fulfil the goal of maintaining public safety, public order, or protecting other people’s rights and interests,” said Chow.

Chow Hang-tung
Chow Hang-tung. File photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

The superintendent also told Pang that she did not ask the Department of Health as to what preventative measures could be taken to reduce transmission risk at the memorial event.

Chow said that she “had an open-mind” while deciding on whether to approve the rally after the liaison meeting with the Alliance and before receiving expert advice from the Department of Health on May 29, 2020.

Pang then said that, in a memo sent by the police on May 25, 2020 to the department asking for health expert advice, the statement was not intended for the liaison meeting, but was for “early preparation for an appeal board meeting.”

The superintendent said in response that as she could not “rule out the possibility” of banning the vigil, she “had to be well prepared” for an appeal against the police decision by the Alliance.

The senior counsel then said that Chow had decided to ban the rally “even before any advice was sought from the Department of Health,” to which the superintendent objected to.

Barrister Cheung Yiu-leung, representing Chow Hang-tung, cross-examined the superintendent after Pang, soon before the court session was adjourned to Wednesday morning.

As the defendants left the dock, some people shouted “mourning is not a crime.”

Hongkongers have commemorated victims of the Tiananmen Massacre every year until 2020 with a mass candlelight rally in Victoria Park, the only major commemoration on Chinese soil.

The Tiananmen Massacre occurred on June 4, 1989 ending months of student-led demonstrations in China. It is estimated that hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people died when the People’s Liberation Army was deployed to crack down on protesters in Beijing.

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Candice is a reporter at Hong Kong Free Press. She previously worked as a researcher at a local think tank. She has a BSocSc in Politics and International Relations from the University of Manchester and a MSc in International Political Economy from London School of Economics.