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Hong Kong denies U.S. lawyer’s appeal over assault in ruling that critics call win for police impunity

Samuel Bickett in Hong Kong in August 2021. (Anthony Kwan for The Washington Post)
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HONG KONG — A Hong Kong High Court judge on Tuesday dismissed American corporate lawyer Samuel Bickett’s appeal to overturn his conviction for assaulting a police officer in 2019 and sent him back to jail to serve the remainder of his sentence.

Bickett’s case is among those that are being closely watched as litmus tests of what remains of Hong Kong’s independent judiciary. It has come to be seen by critics of the verdict as a testament to the unchecked power of the city’s police force, which has been exonerated of using excessive force against demonstrators during the 2019 protests.

The former compliance director at Bank of America Merrill Lynch was on his way to dinner in late 2019 when he saw a man hitting a teenager with an extendable baton and stopped to intervene. The assailant turned out to be an off-duty police officer but did not identify himself as such when repeatedly asked.

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An altercation then ensued between the man, identified later as Yu Shu-sang, and other bystanders. Footage shows him later lunging at Bickett with his baton in his right hand, before he falls over a railing. Bickett then attempts to wrestle Yu’s baton away, pinning and hitting him in what Bickett said was an act of self-defense. Yu never produced a warrant card and identified himself as a police officer only after arresting Bickett.

Judge Esther Toh, whom the judiciary has also designated to try Hong Kong’s national security cases, upheld a lower court’s conviction of guilt. She repeatedly pointed to December 2019, when the altercation occurred, as the “height of two years of social disturbances that plagued Hong Kong,” where police were “taunted, maligned and sworn at” by people on the streets. She ruled that Yu, in this circumstance and because the incident happened quickly, acted in the public interest in denying he was a police officer and not producing a warrant card.

The teenager whom Yu initially attacked had jumped over a turnstile. When pursuing him, Yu yelled “indecent assault” in Cantonese. The judge said this falsehood was “perfectly understandable” as the off-duty officer, in plainclothes, wanted to get the attention of the crowd.

Bickett’s attorneys argued that Yu was in violation of the police guidelines on use of force, but the judge dismissed this argument, too, saying that the guidelines were “not relevant” to the case. Hong Kong was in a period of social unrest, she said, and the off-duty officer’s actions were “entirely natural and appropriate.”

Toh dismissed the appeal and upheld Bickett’s initial sentence of four months and two weeks. Bickett, who was out on bail pending this appeal, will return to jail to serve the remainder of his sentence, which is six weeks. In a statement prepared before his detention, Bickett said he would appeal the decision to a higher court and will “continue to fight to overturn the verdict.”

No Hong Kong police officer has been charged or held accountable for excessive use of force against civilians, including the officer who blinded a journalist in one eye after shooting a baton round in her direction during a protest. The police force has identified the officer, but refuses to name him.

During Bickett’s trial and appeal, dozens of members of the public showed up in support. He received stacks of letters while in jail bearing messages of solidarity. In a previous interview, Bickett said he believed his case “doesn’t just represent the destruction of the rule of law, it represents a destruction of values.”

“I feel this immense burden not just to get justice on appeal for me but … for all these Hongkongers who supported me,” he said.

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