Hong Kong court fines Falun Gong members over protest

Reuters, Aug. 15, 2002
By Tan Ee Lyn

HONG KONG (Reuters) – A Hong Kong court fined 16 Falun Gong members on Thursday for public obstruction and other offences during a protest against China, in a case that has raised fears about personal freedoms here under Chinese rule.

Magistrate Symon Wong could have jailed the members of the group, which is outlawed in mainland China.

This was the first time that members of the controversial spiritual movement had been prosecuted in Hong Kong, where personal rights under previous laws were retained after China took the territory back from Britain in 1997.

The 16 defendants, including four Swiss, one New Zealander, and two U.S. residents from Hong Kong, remained defiant.

Pumping their clenched fists in the air, they shouted: “We are not guilty! We will not pay a single cent! We will appeal!”

In his verdict, the magistrate said: “The defendants had paid absolutely no regard to the public during the demonstration… The defendants were in open defiance of the laws of Hong Kong.”

The court fined each defendant between HK$1,300 and HK$3,800 (US$165 and US$485), well below the maximum penalties, which included jail terms of up to two years.

Political observers say the charges coincided with what appeared to be a hardening of resolve by the territory’s leader, Tung Chee-Hwa, to get tough on China’s critics.

All 16 were found guilty of public obstruction. Nine were also convicted of wilfully obstructing police and three with assaulting police officers. All had pleaded not guilty.

In his decision, the magistrate said people in Hong Kong had the right to protest and hold demonstrations and he stressed that such rights should be protected.

“But one thing is for sure: these rights are not absolute. They require a very delicate balance, having regard to overall circumstances, such as the time and place,” Wong said, adding that the members’ actions had been unlawful and unreasonable.

Chinese media only carried brief reports of the verdict, but government officials in Beijing had no immediate comment.

However, a Chinese official familiar with the trial said the fines were a way to signal displeasure with Falun Gong without stirring anger among the group’s supporters with jail sentences.

Hong Kong residents had mixed reactions to the judgment.

“It will threaten freedom of speech, expression and association in Hong Kong,” said Chris Lam, a professional in his 20s. “I think everybody should have the freedom of speech, as long as they don’t endanger public safety.”

But others called for more faith in the judiciary.

“We have to respect the decision of the judicial system. While Hong Kong people support freedom of speech…the activities of NGOs (non-governmental organisations) have to observe the law. I do believe we should not politicise the case,” said Joseph Cheng, politics professor at the City University.

Beijing promised this former British colony a high degree of autonomy after it reverted to Chinese rule in 1997.

The charges against the Falun Gong followers surprised many observers, since Hong Kong officials had been generally tolerant of the group’s protests, even after China banned it in 1999.

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Religion News Blog posted this on Friday August 16, 2002.
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