Media tycoon Jimmy Lai has a case to answer regarding his alleged incitement of others to join an unauthorised assembly on June 4 last year, a Hong Kong court has said.
The District Court decided on Thursday that Lai’s trial would proceed, after prosecution evidence showed the defendant saying he would definitely attend the banned candlelight vigil at Victoria Park and appealing to the public not to be scared of the authorities.
The vigil was an annual event organised by the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China to mark the 1989 Beijing Tiananmen Square crackdown. It was banned by the police last year on the grounds of Covid-19.
Prosecutors said that on the evening of June 4, 2020, Lai suggested that then alliance chairman Lee Cheuk-yan and other people light candles at the water fountain plaza on the edge of the park. He also raised his candle alongside the others and repeated slogans shouted by Lee.
“Lai was a prominent public figure,” head prosecutor Laura Ng said. “He went to Victoria Park, a sensitive location at a sensitive time, and was greeted by Lee and others. They stood together in front of the media.
“These acts showed his support and encouraged others to take part in the unauthorised assembly. He made a rally impact by appearing.”
Ng continued: “Since Lai did not go inside Victoria Park that night, there was a purpose for him to turn up at the water fountain plaza, that is, to show support and make an appearance, and to attract media attention to incite [others].”
Later that night, Lai granted a media interview at a church in Shau Kei Wan. Upon learning from the reporter that numerous vigil participants had appeared at the park, he said he felt “encouraged”, according to video clips of the interview presented by the prosecution in court.
Robert Pang SC, the defence counsel representing Lai, rebutted the evidence as merely indicating his client’s intention to incite. It failed to prove any words were said, or acts done, that amounted to incitement, Pang argued.
Judge Amanda Woodcock decided that the prosecution had a prima facie case against Lai. The defence will open its case on Friday. Lai’s co-defendants are Chow Hang-tung, former vice-chairwoman of the alliance, and Gwyneth Ho, a former journalist.
On Thursday, the court also heard testimony from prosecution witness So Ka-lai, a police officer who was responsible for estimating the number of participants inside the park on June 4.
So said it was his first time handling such a task and the police had no internal guidelines on how to gauge participation at the event.
The police officer said he relied on an estimation method posted by the University of Hong Kong on the internet. That night, he made a visual assessment of how full each of the park’s six football pitches was and, based on the capacity of each square metre to accommodate 2.8 people, he arrived at the figure of 20,839.
Another prosecution witness was Chau Yin-fung, then assistant manager of the government’s Leisure and Cultural Services Department at Victoria Park. He testified that the alliance applied on June 29, 2019, to use the six football pitches and four basketball courts between May 31 and June 4, 2020.
The department had a practice of processing venue applications for non-designated uses only two to three months prior to the event date, the court heard, which meant it would look into the alliance’s submission only around March or April 2020.
As the football pitches and basketball courts were closed beginning March 28, 2020, due to Covid-19, Chau told the alliance that processing of its application had been suspended.
Still, large crowds entered the park on June 4, pulled down the mill barriers fencing off the football pitches and sat down. Chau said he told the security guards not to take any action because their personal safety came first. The security guards then told the participants that public gatherings were not allowed.
Station sergeant Lee Man-bun, who was tasked with traffic control that night, told the court that roads around Victoria Park, including Kingston, Great George and Paterson streets, were closed off for about two hours due to many people entering and leaving the park.
By Y.S. Luk