Cheers as 11 WTO protestors go free

11 January, 2006

Charges have been dropped against 11 of 14 people arrested as a result of clashes during the World Trade Organization meeting in Wan Chai last month.

Three Koreans accused of attacking police officers still face trial.

Inside a packed courtroom at Kwun Tong Magistracy Wednesday, the three remaining defendants entered defiant pleas of not guilty and later vowed to prove their innocence.

Each was released on unconditional bail of HK$30,000 until March 1. They plan to return to South Korea tomorrow. The 11 whose charges were dropped included eight Koreans, a Japanese, a Taiwanese and a mainlander.

The prosecution brought charges of unlawful assembly, which can result in jail sentences of up to five years, against two of the remaining defendants.

But the charge against Yang Kyung Kyu, the Korean unionist identified by prosecutors as a "ringleader," was downgraded to unauthorized assembly - a related charge that does not imply the use of violence but carries the same maximum punishment.

The other two defendants are Koreans Park In Hwan and Yun Il Kwan of the Korean Peasants' League.

Defense counsel YL Cheung questioned the prosecution's ability to make a strong case against the three defendants based solely on eyewitness accounts.

Speaking outside the courtroom after adjournment, Yang was defiant. "The clash was caused by police," he said. "We are furious that Hong Kong authorities did not drop all charges. The fact that 11 were released without any charges shows that the police are pursuing this on a political basis, rather than on the evidence."

Others were more conciliatory. Released Korean defendants Lee Hyung Jin and Kang Seung Kyu said they were happy to return home, while another, Kim Chang Jun, said local Catholic Bishop Joseph Zen had given HK$1,000 to each of the Korean defendants during their stay to buy winter clothes.

The Taiwanese protester, Lee Chien-cheng, 22, celebrated his release with a bowl of noodles.

During the proceedings, lead defense counsel Martin Lee was incensed that prosecutors had linked a charge that Yun Il Kwan threw mud at police officers with a charge that he used a wooden plank to hit policemen.

Yun denied the latter charge and attempted to lodge a plea of "partially guilty," of mud throwing. When prosecutors refused to drop the latter charge, Lee said: "Then we'll fight, if that's what he wants. Every cell in my body wants to fight this case."

Yang, too, changed his plea to not guilty. The move, Lee explained, was done because Yang was a leader.

"He's like the captain of a ship. He wanted to take responsibility," Lee said.

Bishop Joseph Zen continued his championing of the protesters, saying the proceedings tarnished Hong Kong's reputation.

"God should punish them," he said of the police.

Mabel Au, a spokeswoman for the Hong Kong People's Alliance on the WTO, which organized the protests, said she was pleased with the outcome so far, but insisted the protesters should not have been arrested to begin with. HKPA planned a celebratory tea gathering for the protesters.

Kwon Young Ghil, president of South Korea's leftist Democratic Labor Party, described the release of the protesters as "unexpected."

Local lawmaker Ronny Tong called the decision not to charge some protesters an acceptable move that would help Hong Kong's international image.

The police ended their investigation of the December 17 incident last week after going through stacks of witness statements, photographs, and video recordings from the riotous confrontation, prosecutor John Reading told the court.

Prosecutors concluded they had "a reasonable prospect of conviction" against Park and Yun. But they decided the evidence could not justify prosecution of the others and that the alternative offense of unauthorized assembly was more suitable for Yang.

Alfred Ma, the outgoing head of Police Public Relations Bureau, said he had no regrets about the prosecution decision.

"We have already done our best to present evidence in a way that is most fair to the defendants. We have nothing to feel sorry for,"
Ma said.

"You have to present the case in a fair manner, in accordance with the rule of law. Evidence must satisfy the standard set by the legal system."

There will be a pretrial review on February 6.