Crowd gathered at Victoria Park to commemorate victims of the 1989 Tiananmen military action in June 4, 2020. (File photo)

Police did not seek Covid prevention ideas from health experts before banning June 4 vigil, court hears

Hong Kong police banned an annual June 4 candlelight vigil last year without asking government medical advisers what precautions would be needed for the event to proceed amid Covid-19, a court learned on Tuesday.

The police’s main reason for prohibiting the peaceful event was a lack of proposed concrete and effective preventive measures from the vigil organisers, superintendent Josephine Chow said under cross-examination.

Chow testified that, prior to the ban, she had sought the Department of Health’s advice about holding the mass gathering, but did not elicit possible suggestions from it on what could be done to alleviate the Covid-19 risk.

The June 4 vigil had been a yearly affair held in open air at Victoria Park in Hong Kong to mark the 1989 Beijing Tiananmen Square crackdown. It was organised by the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China. 

Last year, the police issued a letter of objection to the alliance’s application, but the rally went ahead anyway. Three defendants are now on trial at the District Court for unauthorised assembly, after 21 others pleaded guilty. Of the defendants, 16 have received sentences of four to 10 months in jail. 

The trio standing trial include the alliance’s former vice-chairwoman Chow Hang-tung, who faces charges of taking part and of inciting others to take part in the unauthorised assembly, contrary to common law and the Public Order Ordinance. Media tycoon Jimmy Lai has been charged with inciting others to take part, while former journalist Gwyneth Ho is accused of taking part in the event.

On Tuesday, Josephine Chow told the court that the police received the alliance’s application on April 23, 2020, to hold the June 4 rally. Given the ongoing pandemic, the force requested expert opinions from the health department on May 25 and obtained a reply on May 29, one day after police officers had met the alliance’s representatives for a discussion.

In its response to the police, the department said that mass gatherings were not recommended in the light of pandemic developments at the time. The police then issued the letter of objection on June 1 to the alliance, which did not appeal against the decision.

Defense counsel Robert Pang SC, representing Jimmy Lai, asked Josephine Chow why police officials did not impose any conditions on the public gathering although they were entitled to do so.

Chow said that any precautions taken must be reasonable and proportionate. She admitted not having asked the government health experts to suggest any measures to guard against the spread of Covid-19 during the event.

Mask-wearing was the minimum requirement, she added, but quoted the alliance as saying it could not force the vigil participants to don masks. Neither did the alliance agree to adjust the number of participants it would allow into the venue, according to Chow.

“Even if we imposed approval conditions so that the vigil could go ahead, these conditions could not be carried out by the alliance, hence [precautionary] measures would not be effective in achieving public safety and public order or in protecting the interests of others,” the superintendent said.

Defence barrister Cheung Yiu-leung, representing Chow Hang-tung, put it to Josephine Chow that it seemed the police had placed less emphasis on freedom of assembly compared to other considerations, such as public safety, public order and rights, and the interests of people who were not joining the public gathering.

The superintendent replied that the police had always respected the public’s freedom of assembly.

The trial continues on Wednesday before Judge Amanda Woodcock. 

By Y.S. Luk