CATHOLIC NEWS OF THE WEEK . Saturday, 9 September 2017

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On a day when obedience was not a virtue

HONG KONG (SE): On a day when obedience was not a virtue, tens of thousands of people braved the blazing sun to express their discontent at a decision of the Court of Appeal to jail the trio from the Umbrella Movement: Joshua Wong Chi-fung, Nathan Law Kwun-chung and Alex Chow Yong-kang; and express their solidarity with them.
 
With unofficial estimates placing the August 20 gathering at more than 50,000, the rally in Wan Chai expressed its solidarity with the three who have been put behind bars for their part in leading civil disobedience activities in 2014.
 
The trio had previously been found guilty in a lower court on charges of inciting others to incite others to commit public nuisance in and around the government offices in Tamar and were also sentenced: Wong and Chow to community service, and Law to a suspended prison term.
 
However, a decision handed down by the Court of Appeal on August 17 increased the severity of their sentences, leaving the three behind bars for from six to eight months.
 
Discontent boiled in many sections of Hong Kong when the prosecution lodged an appeal against what it called the leniency of the sentencing, which prompted many people to suspect the court system of bowing to government pressure to sentence the three to a more than three-month prison stint.
 
The more than three months is significant, as it disqualifies them from running for a public office for the coming five years and the massed gathering in Wan Chai suggested that the government may have influenced the court, as all three could be considered favourites in the next elections for the Legislative Council (LegCo) or District Councils.
 
For his part, Law was elected to the LegCo last year, but later disqualified over a controversy about swearing-in procedures.
 
The legal fraternity has gathered around the judge, Wally Yeung Chun-kuen, warning that implying that he had been swayed by government pressure in his ruling is a serious accusation that may add up to contempt.
 
On August 21, the chief executive, Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, defended the independence of the judiciary strongly, denying any interference on the part of the administration, adding that any impact the case may have on the credibility of the courts could spell the end of life as we know it in Hong Kong.
 
However, there is also discontent with Yeung for stating that advocating for civil disobedience in Hong Kong has become an unhealthy trend and for strongly criticising those who promote the idea, as well as suggesting the case against the three is the best example of this unhealthy trend.
 
Yeung wrote, “These people openly despise the rule of law. Not only do they refuse to admit their lawbreaking behaviour is wrong, they even see their acts as something to be proud of.”
 
He continued, “This arrogant and self-righteous thinking will unfortunately affect some of our young people and result in attempts to disrupt public order... during rallies, marches and protests.”
 
The sticking point is that he appears to rule out the possibility of civil disobedience, which, although a complicated legal concept, is recognised in law as a way of objecting to harsh or unjust decisions and actions by government.
 
A former chairperson of the Bar Association, Paul Shieh Wing-tai, told the South China Morning Post that he believes that this was not Yeung’s intention saying that if the idea of civil disobedience was ruled out altogether it would be unfortunate.
 
Nevertheless, he did admit that the expression of the judge may have been somewhat clumsy, but insisted that reading a complete condemnation of civil disobedience into the ruling would be to twist his words somewhat.
 
But as Pontius Pilate said after another trial in another era, “What I have written, I have written,” openly defying anyone to twist his meaning to any other end.
 
While not claiming that the sentence of the lower court was not legally justifiable, the prosecution claimed that the original sentences neglected the gravity of the offences and predicted this would lead to an increasing number of such crimes at future rallies, so the court needed to develop sentencing guidelines.
 
The prosecution also pointed out that the three had in fact used violence and it also claimed that their action was planned.
 
However, many commentators and members of the public are not convinced.
 
The Justice and Peace Commission called the appeal against the original sentencing a divisive action in society and has scheduled a Mass to be offered in solidarity with the trio at Shau Kei Wan on August 31.
 
In a lengthy statement released on August 21 the commission noted that it is easy to be critical of anyone who breaks a law, but more difficult to look at the case in the context of justice within the institutional violence of Hong Kong.
 
It points out that the confrontation only occurred after a succession of peaceful appeals were ignored by the government and quotes Pope Francis as saying in The Joy of the Gospel, “Peace in society cannot be understood as pacification or the mere absence of violence resulting from the domination of one part of society over others.”
 
The pope continues saying, “Nor does true peace act as a pretext for justifying a social structure which silences or appeases the poor, so that the more affluent can placidly support their lifestyle while others have to make do as they can” (218).
 
The commission condemns the court for talking about harmony and progress within a political system that supports a structured violence which, through the deliberate makeup of the LegCo, denies the bulk of the population any realistic role in the management of the territory.
 
It then quotes El Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero as pointing out that structured violence is the worst kind of violence, as it is the source of all other violence.
 
The commission then cites a development plan for the Northeast New Territories proposed by the government, which it describes as ignoring the interests of the villagers and recalls that they had rallied and raised their opposing opinions many times during 2014 to 2015.
 
But on 13 June 2014, the then-chairperson of the Finance Committee, Ng Leung-sing, tried to silence the people’s voice by cutting question time in the LegCo in an attempt to ramrod the bill, prompting protesters outside the building to storm it.
 
The commission then proposes that the Occupy Central Movement of 2014 erupted in a similar circumstance as in a last ditch effort to be heard, the students, who were objecting to the violence of a 31 August 2014 statement from the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress pushing any hope of a democratic election for the chief executive out beyond the foreseeable future, tried to force a hearing.
 
Then in reference to Yeung’s sentencing statement, be it clumsily written or not, the commission quoted an extremely clear statement from the Catechism of the Catholic Church as saying, “The citizen is obliged in conscience not to follow the directives of civil authorities when they are contrary to the demands of the moral order (or) to the fundamental rights of persons or the teachings of the gospel” (2242).
 
It then adds that obedience ceases to be a virtue when demands are contrary to those of an upright conscience and finds justification in the distinction between serving God and serving the political community.
 
The Justice and Peace Commission says that if the case is looked at in the context of delivering justice rather than justifying strict legal procedures, it believes that a different conclusion would emerge.

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