A Hong Kong pro-democracy busker has been acquitted of organising a prohibited group gathering after the judge cast doubt over the reliability of a police officer’s testimony.

Oliver Ma
Street musician Oliver Ma outside Eastern Law Courts Building on May 31, 2023. Photo: Hillary Leung/HKFP.

Oliver Ma appeared at Eastern Magistrates Court on Tuesday afternoon wearing a light-blue collared shirt. He pleaded not guilty to the offence, which was linked to a street performance over two years ago, last month.

The 24-year-old was arrested on May 21, 2021, while playing guitar and singing at the junction of Queen’s Road Central and Theatre Lane at around 10 p.m. Police arrived on the scene following a noise complaint.

After multiple warnings for Ma to stop his performance, police arrested him for behaving in a disorderly manner in a public place. The charge was later changed to organising a prohibited group gathering, an offence under Covid-19 regulations.

Delivering the verdict, magistrate Minnie Wat said there was only one prosecution witness – the police officer who arrested Ma – and that the court had to be “cautious” with his testimony.

Wat said that during the trial last month, the officer David Yam testified that he was making observations from a police vehicle parked at a lay-by close to the scene, from where he saw around 30 to 40 people gathered around Ma and taking photos.

Oliver Ma arrest May 21
Busker Oliver Ma surrounded by police in Central on May 21, 2021. Photo: Oliver Ma Facebook screenshot.

The magistrate said, however, there were details missing from Yam’s evidence and that it was difficult to ascertain whether his observation was “accurate and of good quality.”

Wat said it was unclear where the lay-by was or how far Ma was from the vehicle, with Yam giving a description that was “subjective and vague.”

It was also not known if he had observed the scene for 10 minutes as stated, if he lost sight, or whether his view was obstructed, she added.

The magistrate said it was noted that Ma had failed to produce a permit for playing a music instrument in a public place when asked, and that he ignored police intervention.

“This act certainly drew suspicion to himself. But based on the above, the prosecution failed to prove its case beyond [that],” Wat said.

Glory to Hong Kong
Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

A video of Ma performing Glory to Hong Kong while surrounded by police officers was widely shared in 2019. The song, written by pro-democracy supporters during the protests and unrest last year, has since been referred to by authorities as a song “closely associated with violent protests and the independence movement.”

Though the demonstrations attracted some pro-independence activists, it was not one of protesters’ demands.

The song is banned in schools, although the government has refused to say if it is is illegal.

‘Exhausted, and happy’

Speaking to reporters outside the court, Ma – who had changed into an all-yellow ensemble – said he was “exhausted, and happy” to be acquitted.

“This court case has been going on for almost two years now. I was just arrested for singing in the street, just practicing my own… artistic right,” Ma said.

Oliver Ma
Street musician Oliver Ma outside Eastern Law Courts Building on May 31, 2023. Photo: Hillary Leung/HKFP.

Ma said he was would “probably not” perform Glory to Hong Kong in the street again “in this climate.”

Besides this incident, Ma has been arrested while busking on other occasions. In July 2020, he was charged under the Noise Control Ordinance in connection to a street performance in Central. The magistrate ruled that he was not guilty and that the cleaner who complained about the noise had exaggerated in the testimony.

A month later, Ma was fined for not wearing a face mask and arrested while performing in Central again. He was suspected of obstructing police officers and possessing an offensive weapon, with police saying they had found a pair of toy handcuffs on him. He was not charged.

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Hillary has an interest in social issues and politics. Previously, she reported on Asia broadly - including on Hong Kong's 2019 protests - for TIME Magazine and covered local news at Coconuts Hong Kong.