SCMP Friday, October 6, 2000
The timing was insensitive, and the decision regrettable. But once the police arrested students who demonstrated without applying for permission, the Department of Justice was handed a dilemma that it is still faced with, even though no charges are being laid against students in the April demonstration on tuition fees.
There was never much doubt in which direction public sympathy lay in both cases. But legal decisions are not taken on the basis of local sentiment. Nor should they be influenced in any way by political pressure. The law is there to be upheld, even if - as in this case - it is a bad law, and needs to be amended.
Police were entitled to act against the protesters, in both the April and June incidents. It is unfortunate that they acted as and when they did, immediately before National Day and after such a lapse of time. However, that is no longer the issue. Concern hinges on the pressure being exerted from several quarters on the Secretary for Justice, Elsie Leung Oi-sie, not to press charges.
In every case that reaches her office, decisions must be taken based solely on the facts, ensuring that the rule of law is paramount. True public interest lies in ensuring that the law is consistently upheld without regard to emotion, influence or status. If the facts are clear and undisputed, as they are in both cases, it is quite rational for charges to follow arrest.
The students' plight became a cause celebre mainly because of the nature of the police action. It is difficult to imagine a softer target than students protesting over tuition fees. Had it been battle-hardened campaigners who were made an example of, the matter would have passed without comment. But when many other illegal demonstrations have passed without action, it was inevitable that the student arrests would be seen by many members of the public as victimisation.
So few protesters were involved in the arrests, and all at an age when rebellion is to be expected. Since there is a lot at stake in their futures, and because they are more than likely to become tomorrow's respectable and law-abiding citizens, it is unfortunate that the police did not feel disposed to show a little more forbearance.
Police action in the June right of abode protest was especially ill-judged. By no stretch of the imagination can pepper spray be described as minimum force. It can blister the skin, the tiniest amount on the eyes causes agony, and its choking fumes turn the victim from struggling for breath to violent retching. Against stone throwing mobs it is a necessary protection. But against unarmed student demonstrators?
Nevertheless, the students did breach the Public Order Ordinance, and the Department of Justice now has to rule on the most difficult issue. It must do so on the merits of the case even though that particular law lacks merit itself, and should be reviewed at the earliest opportunity.