Implementing Covid-19 precautionary measures for last year’s banned Tiananmen Massacre vigil would have been “logistically challenging,” a Hong Kong Department of Health doctor told the court on Wednesday at a trial involving three democrats. Chen Hong, head of the Infection Control Branch of the Centre for Health Protection (CHP), said she had attended the annual commemoration many times in previous years.
Chen testified at the District Court as pro-democracy 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 front of Judge Amanda Woodcock.
Lai, Chow, and Ho stand accused of inciting others to participate, or take part in, an unauthorised assembly. As of Monday, 21 other defendants in the same case linked to last year’s banned vigil have pleaded guilty, been brought to court or have been sentenced to jail.
Chen was called to testify in court on Wednesday afternoon as the trial entered the third day. She was the health expert responsible for giving advice to Superintendent of Police Josephine Chow, who issued a letter of objection to the Alliance.
The defence continued to challenge the merit and the validity of the police ban. Last year’s Tiananmen Massacre candlelight vigil was banned by the force citing Covid-19 health concerns, though many clambered over barriers and turned up anyway to remember the 1989 dead.
On Tuesday, the superintendent said in court that she decided to ban the rally after receiving a memo from Chen saying that mass gatherings were not recommended at that time. She said that she did not consider suggesting Covid-19 mitigation measures to the Alliance, as she “knew that the Alliance could not do so.”
Representing the media tycoon, Senior Counsel Robert Pang asked Chen whether it would be correct to say that “Hong Kong people generally tend to be compliant to instructions of mask wearing,” to which the doctor replied saying that she was not in a position to comment.
Chen sent Chow her recommendation on May 28, 2020, in which she cited World Health Organisation’s (WHO) advice on mass gatherings during Covid-19 published nine days earlier.
Pang told the court that the WHO published an update to their guideline a day after Chen’s memo was sent, which said that mass gathering should not be “automatically prohibited,” and that there should be a “risk assessment exercise and planning exercise” for events.
When asked if she was aware of the updated WHO guidelines, and whether she thought “it was not [her] duty to update the police,” Chen said that she “may not come across” updates on the day they are released. Besides, even if she had the new WHO advisory, her recommendation to the police would have still been the same.
Barrister Cheung Yiu-leung cross-examined Chen after the senior counsel. Cheung asked whether the mass gathering could have continued if measures such as body temperature checks could be implemented, but the doctor said there would still be risks and that they “want to err on the safe side.”
Chen also said that, based on information given by the police, in which the Alliance said around 50,000 to 100,000 participants were expected in the vigil, she was “really worried about the public health risk,” and also the nature of the event.
When pushed by Cheung to say what she meant by the nature of the event, Chen said that as she had took part in the vigil many times, she knew it would be difficult to implement precautionary measures at the scene.
The doctor also said while she “was not in a position to comment” over whether attempts to impose preventative measures with the expected number of participants would be impractical, however it would be “logistically challenging” to do so.
The court session was adjourned to Thursday morning after the prosecution played some video clips involving scenes at the 2020 vigil.
As the judge was leaving the courtroom, people in the public gallery stood up and waved at the defendants. Some people made a heart shape with their arms, while some others shouted “mourning is not a crime” whilst defendants were leaving the dock.
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