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LCQ3: Public meetings and processions

     Following is a reply by the Secretary for Security, Mr Lai Tung-kwok, to a question by the Hon Kenneth Leung in the Legislative Council today (December 19):


     Recently, it has been reported by the media that the Police arrested 444 protesters last year and prosecuted 54 of them.  Apart from the surge in the number of persons arrested as compared to those in previous years, the Police prosecuted 45 persons under the Public Order Ordinance, and the number was higher than the total number in the past 14 years (i.e. from 1997 to 2010).  Some concern groups have pointed out that the Police have changed the approach in handling public processions and assemblies in recent years, from prosecuting protesters mainly for the offences of assaulting police officers or obstructing police officers' execution of duties, to prosecuting protesters by invoking provisions under the Public Order Ordinance.  These concern groups have further pointed out that the Public Order Ordinance was enacted by the colonial government in response to the riots in 1967, and some provisions therein impose very stringent and extensive regulation on public processions, assemblies and personal behaviours and have been in force since then.  For instance, any person who in any public place behaves in a manner whereby a breach of the peace is likely to be caused shall be liable to imprisonment for one year; and any person who takes part in an unlawful assembly shall be liable to imprisonment for five years.  Moreover, if members of the public take part in an unauthorised public meeting, they shall be liable to a maximum penalty of five years' imprisonment.  In this connection, will the Government inform this Council:

(a) of the reasons for the Police prosecuting only 54 of the 444 protesters arrested last year, and whether it has reviewed if the Police have abused the power of arrest or have been selective in instituting prosecutions; and list the number of cases in which prosecutions were instituted against protesters in each of the past 10 years by the legislation invoked;

(b) whether the Police have drawn up law enforcement guidelines in respect of the Public Order Ordinance; if they have, of the details; whether they have specifically instructed police officers to consider as a priority handling public processions and assemblies according to the provisions of the Public Order Ordinance, including arresting and prosecuting the persons concerned; if such an instruction has been given, of the reasons for and details of that; and

(c) whether the Police had sought legal advice from the Department of Justice on the charges to be laid before instituting prosecutions against the 45 protesters under the Public Order Ordinance last year; if they had not, of the reasons for that; given that according to the present prosecution policy, the Police are required to seek legal advice from the Department of Justice first and obtain the approval of the Deputy Director of Public Prosecutions if they wish to institute prosecutions under section 36(b) of the Offences Against the Person Ordinance, whether the authorities will consider imposing the same requirements on cases relating to public processions, public assemblies and Public Order Ordinance; if they will not, of the reasons for that?



     Hong Kong residents enjoy the freedom and rights of assembly and procession which are protected under the Basic Law and the Hong Kong Bill of Rights Ordinance.  The Police always handle public meetings and processions in a fair, just and impartial manner in accordance with the laws of Hong Kong.  The operational policy of the Police is to endeavour to strike a balance by facilitating all lawful and peaceful public meetings and processions on one hand, and on the other hand, reducing the impact of such activities on other members of the public or road users, and to ensure public order and public safety.  In exercising their freedom of expression, participants of public meetings or processions should, under the premise of observing the Hong Kong law and without affecting public order, conduct such activities in a peaceful and orderly manner.

     Under the Public Order Ordinance, any public meeting or procession the attendance of which exceeds the limit prescribed in the Ordinance, i.e. public meetings of more than 50 persons and public processions of more than 30 persons, shall give a notice to the Commissioner of Police (CP) not less than seven days prior to the intended event, and it can only be conducted if CP does not prohibit or object to it.  The notification shall cover such basic information as the date of the public meeting or procession, time of commencement and duration, location or route, theme, as well as the estimated number of participants, etc.  CP may impose condition(s) on a notified public meeting or procession to ensure order of the event and public safety, and the corresponding condition(s) imposed will be stated explicitly in the "letter of no objection" issued to the organisers.  Organisers may appeal to the statutory Appeal Board on Public Meetings and Processions (the Appeal Board) if they consider CP's decision unreasonable.  Chaired by a retired judge, the Appeal Board consists of three other members selected in rotation from a panel of 15 members, can be convened at short notice upon receipt of an appeal application.  The Court of Final Appeal pointed out in a judgment that Hong Kong's statutory requirement for notification is widespread in jurisdictions around the world.  It also affirmed that such statutory requirement for notification is constitutional, and is required to enable the Police to fulfil their duties by taking reasonable and appropriate measures to enable lawful assemblies and demonstrations to take place in a peaceful manner.

     Generally speaking, upon receipt of a notification of a public meeting or procession, the Police will maintain an active and close communication with the event organiser to offer advice and assistance.  Where necessary, Police Community Relations Officers may also be present during the event to act as a bridge of communication between the organiser and the Field Commander.  Participants of public processions should not engage in any behaviour to the detriment of public order or any act of violence.  In case the peace and public order are jeopardised, the Police have to take decisive actions to restore public order and public safety.

     In the past decade (from 2002 to 2011), the annual number of public meetings and processions in Hong Kong was on the rise (from 2,303 events in 2002 to 6,878 events in 2011).  The majority of such public meetings and processions were conducted in a peaceful and orderly manner.  However, in the past few years, there has been a significant increase in the number of cases involving disturbance of order or other unlawful acts during public order events.  Weighing upon the possible repercussion and severity of the situation at scene, the Police need to take decisive actions in such cases.  Relevant figures in the past decade are at Annex.

     A total of 444 protesters were arrested by the Police during public order events in 2011, among them 397 were arrested for unlawful assembly, obstructing district trunk routes or unlawful acts during three public order events.  On the advice of the Department of Justice (DoJ), 54 of them were prosecuted and their charges are also set out at Annex.  According to the Police internal guidelines, DoJ's prior advice will be sought if the Police intend to press charges against any persons arrested in public order events.  They will also seek DoJ's advice as to which provisions shall be invoked when pressing charges.

     According to information provided by DoJ, decisions of prosecution (by means of the Public Order Ordinance or the Offences Against the Person Ordinance) are all based on the established and open principles in its Statement of Prosecution Policy and Practice, and are free from political, media or public pressure.  In considering whether charges should be pressed in accordance with the Public Order Ordinance, DoJ will take into account the same factors as when handling other criminal prosecution cases, i.e. whether there is sufficient evidence; whether there is a reasonable prospect of conviction; and if there is sufficient evidence, whether the public interest requires a prosecution to be pursued.

     The Police will continue to communicate with, and secure the support of, event organisers and take lawful measures so as to ensure public order and public safety during public order events.

Ends/Wednesday, December 19, 2012
Issued at HKT 16:21


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