Hong Kong’s police chief has defended the low prosecution rate for offences related to national security, saying such serious acts took time to investigate.
Commissioner of Police Chris Tang Ping-keung also said on Tuesday that suspects who accused the force of trying to spread fear by making arrests over the Beijing-imposed law were simply looking for an excuse to avoid the consequences of their actions.
The force’s National Security Department has arrested 97 individuals and frozen HK$65 million (US$8.38 million) in assets since the imposition of the national security law on June 30 last year. The law outlaws in broad terms acts of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign and external forces, with offenders facing up to life imprisonment.
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Only eight people have been prosecuted, including Jimmy Lai Chi-ying, the 73-year-old founder of the Apple Daily tabloid, who was charged with fraud and colluding with foreign forces.
Tang maintained that national security offences were very serious acts that needed thorough investigation and evidence to be prosecuted.
“The law was only enacted around seven months ago,” he said. “It is still very early to say the prosecution rate is low. There are a lot of cases that are still under active investigation.”
Last month, the force arrested 55 opposition figures on suspicion of subversion for their involvement in an unofficial primary poll ahead of elections for the city’s legislature last year. The government subsequently postponed the elections for a year, citing the dangers of the coronavirus pandemic.
The arrests marked the biggest crackdown on the opposition since the national security law took effect. All of those arrested, except for former Democratic Party chairman Wu Chi-wai, were released on bail without prosecution. They accused police of using the law as a tool to spread “white terror” and suppress the opposition camps.
The police chief disagreed, saying his unit acted on evidence and in accordance with the law.
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“This term has been abused by a lot of people when they were arrested. They made excuses by saying that this is a white terror. As a matter of fact, we [acted] on evidence and on law to make arrests,” Tang continued.
“People try to make this excuse to make themselves feel better, or maybe to try to get away with their criminal liabilities, or to fool the public.”
Safeguarding national security was listed as one of the commissioner’s operational priorities this year. Police have so far received more than 40,000 messages through its multiplatform tip line for suspected violations of the national security law.
Edwina Lau Chi-wai, the head of the National Security Department, said her unit had frozen HK$65 million (US$8.4 million) in assets in four cases.
Separately, eight of the 12 fugitives who were arrested at sea last August by the Chinese coastguard while trying to flee to Taiwan, will finish their jail sentences as early as March 22 after they admitted illegally crossing the border.
Tang said the mainland authorities had not yet notified the Hong Kong side about a release date. But he would ask them to send the eight back to Hong Kong as they were all suspected of committing crimes linked to the anti-government protests in 2019.
Two others, who pleaded guilty to organising the border crossing, were jailed for two and three years.
Two underage suspects who had jumped bail in Hong Kong were returned to local police and are facing trial.
Police have so far arrested 20 people on suspicion of helping the 12 fugitives flee the city. They included 72-year-old lawyer Daniel Wong Kwok-tung, who is also a Kowloon City district councillor, and former assistants to three ex-lawmakers.
They were said to have assisted the fugitives, including introducing them to middle men, arranging shoreline pickups and providing hideouts. All were released on bail pending further investigation.
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