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NYT's idea is an insult to intelligence

By Song Sio-chong | China Daily | Updated: 2017-08-26 10:05

The New York Times has suggested the three young Hong Kong protesters recently jailed by the city's Court of Appeal for violating the law should be awarded this year's Nobel Peace Prize. Nothing could be more ironic than that.

Joshua Wong Chi-fung, Alex Chow Yong-kang and Nathan Law Kwunchung are not political prisoners, as claimed by their sympathizers, but criminal offenders who violated the law by leading a protest in 2014. In July last year, they were convicted of unlawful assembly by a magistrate who spared them imprisonment. Upon appeal by the secretary of justice, the Court of Appeal sentenced them to between six and eight months' imprisonment on Aug 17 after considering the seriousness of their offenses and circumstances of the case.

"Unlawful assembly" is an offense punishable under the common-law system that originated in the United Kingdom. It was codified and stipulated in Section 18 of Hong Kong's Public Order Ordinance long before the city's return to China in July 1997, and has been retained as it does not violate the Basic Law.

Contrary to the misconception that "unlawful assembly" is an offense against the security of state, it is actually an offense against public order. Western media outlets like the NYT and the local opposition camp might have had a reason to call these convicts "political prisoners" had they committed an offense against the security of state. But what they did was an offense against public order. Therefore, any reference to "political prosecution" or "political prisoners" in this case is an aberration.

Another aberration would be to confuse "unlawful assembly" with a "normal public meeting", which requires the organizers to only submit a notice to police in advance. The Public Order Ordinance classifies "unlawful assembly" together with "riots and similar offenses", and defines it as: "When three or more persons, assembled together, conduct themselves in a disorderly, intimidating, insulting or provocative manner intended or likely to cause any person reasonably to fear that the persons so assembled will commit a breach of the peace, or will by such conduct provoke other persons to commit a breach of the peace, they are an unlawful assembly." It can invite a maximum sentence of up to five years in prison.

By construction of the said definition, if three people are assembled, and two resolve to set upon the third, this is not an unlawful assembly, but if the three resolve to attack a fourth, it is. In the case of Wong and others, hundreds of their fellow protesters were provoked; the situation became much more serious than when only three people were involved.

The hearing revealed the trio had discussed and assessed the risk of pounding the steel gate of the government headquarters for occupation after a public meeting ended on the night of Sept 26, 2014. They were preparing to attack with malicious intentions, and the violence they unleashed left more than 10 security guards injured.

Would such a violent unlawful assembly cause any person to fear that the assembled people had committed themselves to breaking peace or provoked others to do the same? The answer is certainly "yes". And the deterrent punishment handed down by the Court of Appeal to the offenders is still much lighter than the stipulated maximum imprisonment.

In the verdict, judge Wally Yeung Chun-kuen has reaffirmed that doing something against the law in the name of self-proclaimed justice is an offense. Laws should safeguard not only the people who exercise their rights but also those who could be affected by the exercise of those rights.

The Nobel Peace Prize is supposed to be awarded only to those who have done great work for deepening ties between nations, for helping abolish or reduce standing armies and for keeping and promoting peace. By suggesting this award be given to people found guilty of unlawful assembly, breaching peace and violating the public order, NYT is not only insulting the intelligence of the Norwegian Nobel Committee members but also being disrespectful to the memory of the great inventor Alfred Nobel.

The author is a veteran Hong Kong commentator and professor at the Research Center of Hong Kong and Macao Basic Law, Shenzhen University.

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