A Hong Kong court has acquitted two students of committing criminal damage by spray-painting words and putting up posters in a pedestrian subway during the 2019 unrest. It ruled that the prosecution presented “weak evidence,” while police officers gave “unreliable” testimony in court.

Shatin Magistrates' Courts
Shatin Magistrates’ Courts. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

Magistrate Pang Leung-ting found students Chan Yiu-hei, 21, and Wong Ho-lam, 22, not guilty of criminal damage on Thursday at the Shatin Magistrates’ Courts. The pair were accused of damaging the walls and the ground of an underpass in Fo Tan Banyan Bridge on September 24, 2019, while Hong Kong was gripped by anti-extradition bill protests.

After Pang announced the not guilty verdict, there was applause from around 40 people in the public gallery. Chan and Wong – represented by barristers Marco Li Wai-kin and Ferrida Chan, respectively – smiled and hugged their friends as they left the courtroom.

Handing down his decision, Pang said the prosecution – led by Louisa Lai – had failed to provide concrete evidence to show that the defendants were indeed among a group of people spotted by the person who called the police.

The magistrate went on to cast doubt on the testimony of a female police officer, who claimed to have seen white glue next to Wong at the scene – a “key detail” missing in her initial written statement.

Pang also said it was “not ideal” that the policewoman only observed Wong for around five seconds, while a photo produced by the defence showed there was a blind spot in the pedestrian subway.

The female officer had admitted in court that she had discussed the case with her colleagues when she spent four hours penning a six-page statement, saying they only talked about the “objective facts” to refresh her memory.

Pang Leung-ting
Magistrate Pang Leung-ting. Photo: Judiciary.

Pang said there was no way to determine if the policewoman had included details in her statement that stemmed from her conversation with her colleagues.

“It is the first time for me to hear [what the policewoman] described as converged memory,” the magistrate said, saying that the police testimony was “unreliable.”

Another piece of police testimony was also dismissed by Pang. The court questioned why a police officer claimed he was worried that evidence at the scene would “slip away” yet still returned items found in Chan’s backpack – including some white glue – to the arrestee.

The officer was also described as being “defensive”, saying he did not want video footage shot by a journalist to be played in court. Pang said the officer “may want to avoid some facts.”

“I cannot rule out the possibility that [the police officer] had fabricated some evidence,” Pang said.

The magistrate ruled that the prosecution failed to present proof and said it made a “very unfair case” against the accused by asking the court to connect the students and the evidence found at the scene to suggest that they “attempted” to commit criminal damage.

October 20 mask ban china extradition protest
A Hong Kong protester photographed outside a vandalised MTR station during the 2019 protests. File Photo: Studio Incendo.

“The evidence was weak… and [prosecutors] were indecisive on the prosecution basis,” Pang remarked.

The case involved another defendant Chu Chun-fai, 22, who had argued he had no case to answer as he complained the police did not give him a proper warning at the time of his arrest. The student alleged that he only admitted to putting up posters in the underpass after an officer told him spray-painting was “a big deal” and amounted to criminal damage, while sticking posters up was “minor.”

Pang ruled in favour of Chu and said the police warning lacked accuracy, as the officer concerned did not pinpoint where the alleged criminal damage took place. The policeman also failed to offer a proper explanation as to why he stopped and searched Chu, or why he deemed the student to be acting suspiciously.

The magistrate decided to eliminate the police warning from the evidence and ruled that the remaining proof of Chu’s backpack found in the underpass – which contained no tools or any item relevant to the case – could only indicate Chan had been at the scene.

“Mere presence is not enough to convict [Chu],” Pang said, adding the prosecution had no proof to show that the student had incited or encouraged acts of criminal damage on that day.

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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.