The lead prosecutor in the trial against the now-defunct digital media outlet Stand News has questioned the credibility of police brutality accusations during the 2019 protests, citing pro-Beijing media reports and police watchdog findings that largely cleared the force of misconduct.

Chung Pui-kuen Stand News
Chung Pui-kuen, the former chief editor of now-shuttered outlet Stand News appears at the District Court on February 2, 2023 over his sedition trial. Photo: Peter Lee/HKFP.

The prosecution resumed its examination of ex-chief editor Chung Pui-kuen in front of Judge Kwok Wai-kin at District Court on Wednesday. The sedition hearing was adjourned last Friday after government lawyers submitted four new boxes of evidence.

Chung, together with Stand News’ former acting chief editor Patrick Lam and its parent company, are accused of conspiring to publish “seditious publications.” The trial was originally scheduled to last 20 days when it first began last October.

During Wednesday’s hearing, lead prosecutor Laura Ng submitted the Independent Police Complaints Council (IPCC)’s 2020 report to provide context for the case, and assess Chung’s perception of the 2019 pro-democracy unrest.

Ng asked Chung whether allegations of police brutality were the “triggering point” of the months-long protests and violent clashes in 2019, as well as a “source for terrorism to flourish later on.”

In response, Chung agreed that police brutality was a main concern for some protesters. He added that he did not deny that the level of violence escalated after protests first erupted in June 2019. “Many of the destructive acts, or more radical protest behaviour, had never been seen in Hong Kong over previous decades,” he said.

2019 police riot shield
Police officers deployed during the 2019 protests and unrest. File photo: Jimmy Lam/USP & HKFP.

However, citing a university poll commissioned by the IPCC, Chung said the increase in violence and illegal acts did not seem to deter people from supporting the social movement. “I was surprised as well,” Chung said.

“There was a deeper layer of political conflict in the background. We have to document and report that,” Chung added.

During the anti-extradition law protests, demonstrators also demanded an independent probe into the police conduct, amnesty for those arrested and a halt to the characterisation of protests as “riots.” 

Woman allegedly shot in eye

The prosecutor then questioned Chung about a case when a woman was allegedly shot by a police bean bag round and suffered a ruptured eye on August 11, 2019. Citing two articles from pro-Beijing newspapers Sing Tao and Oriental Daily, Ng said reports suggested that the woman in question did not – in fact – have her eye ruptured, and was never hit by a police round in the first place.

Chung said the two outlets did not name their sources, nor say whether they had two independent sources to verify the claims.

Additionally, Chung said he had read in Ming Pao when he was detained that there was a copy of a medical report proving the woman’s eye was indeed ruptured.

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The 2019 protests. Photo: May James/HKFP.

Chung and Lam were granted bail on December 13, 2022, after spending almost a year in custody awaiting trial.

The prosecutor then said that, before the defendants were arrested in December, 2021, there seemed to be no material proof of the woman’s injury, nor that it was caused by the police.

In response, Chung said the injury was “quite clear” based on photos from the scene, plus a bean bag round was found next to the woman.

San Uk Ling Holding Centre

Ng also raised questions about the credibility of the allegations made against the police regarding the treatment of detainees at the San Uk Ling Holding Centre.

The government lawyer said that, while the police were accused of beating up and sexually abusing some detainees, the IPCC and the police did not receive any complaints about such matters.

Additionally, Ng said a man was arrested and convicted for publishing rumours about how protesters were mistreated and killed at San Uk Ling.

However, Chung said there was a “logical problem” to say all allegations over San Uk Ling were false and based on people making up stories.

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

The journalist added that he thought the findings of IPCC were “insufficient” to clear the police of misbehaviour, as the watchdog has no investigative power.

He said the credibility of IPCC’s report was also questioned by foreign experts who were entrusted by the government to join an IPCC panel but quit part-way into the probe.

However, Ng said the IPCC had invited the public to submit information for their report. “I gave you a chance to give us details. You didn’t do so, and criticise us afterwards. So, should I believe you?” Ng asked.

In response, Chung said he can think of a lot of reasons why people would not want to tell the IPCC about what they suffered, such as concerns over legal liability after disclosing their presence at a protest site. The defendant added that some of the IPCC’s descriptions of events occurring in 2019 were “largely inconsistent with everyone’s knowledge.”

The anti-sedition legislation, which was last amended in the 1970s when Hong Kong was still under British colonial rule, falls under the city’s Crimes Ordinance. It is separate from the Beijing-imposed national security law, and outlaws incitement to violence, disaffection and other offences against the authorities.

Non-profit online news outlet Stand News ceased operations in December 2021 after its newsroom was raided by more than 200 national security police officers. Seven people connected to the publication were arrested on suspicion of conspiring to publish seditious publications. Only Chung and Lam were charged.

The hearing will resume on Friday.

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Peter Lee is a reporter for HKFP. He was previously a freelance journalist at Initium, covering political and court news. He holds a Global Communication bachelor degree from CUHK.