HONG KONG — A Hong Kong court on Tuesday upheld the conviction of Samuel Bickett, an American corporate lawyer found guilty last year of assaulting a plainclothes police officer in late 2019, when the Chinese territory was roiled by antigovernment protests.
Bickett, 37, was returned to custody to serve the remainder of his prison sentence of four months and two weeks. He had already served more than six weeks last year, before being released on bail in August while he appealed his case.
Bickett maintains that the officer failed to identify himself properly, and that even if he had, he was committing an unlawful assault when Bickett intervened. In a statement posted to Twitter after the decision, he said he would appeal.
Critics of Bickett’s conviction say his case reflects growing police impunity and highlights concerns about rule of law and judicial independence in Hong Kong amid a crackdown on dissent.
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According to Bickett, he was walking through a subway station on Dec. 7, 2019, when he saw a man, later identified as senior police constable Yu Shu-sang, beating a teenager with a baton. Yu, who was off duty at the time, later said the teenager had jumped over a turnstile without paying.
Bickett, who tested that Yu had repeatedly said he was not a police officer, said he tried to take the baton away because he feared Yu might pose a threat to others, resulting in a scuffle between the two men before other police arrived.
In her decision on Tuesday, Judge Esther Toh of Hong Kong’s High Court noted that the incident took place at the height of the 2019 unrest. Police officers both on and off duty were subject to verbal and physical attack, she said, and off-duty officers had been issued the batons as a form of protection.
She rejected Bickett’s arguments and disagreed that his sentence was excessive.
Although he was not arrested in relation to any political activity, Bickett, a former compliance director at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, has become a critic of the government and an advocate for jailed protesters.
He has gained support from the protest movement in return.
Unlike courts in the mainland, which are controlled by the ruling Communist Party, the judicial system in Hong Kong, a former British colony, has long been characterized by jury trials, a robust appeals process and the presumption of bail.
Those elements have been weakened since 2020, when Beijing imposed a national security law in response to the protests, said Eric Lai, a Hong Kong law fellow at the Center for Asian Law at Georgetown University in Washington.
Hong Kong courts are now “more inclined to function as maintaining law and order in support of the government’s agenda to restore order from the protests, and they have less concern with basic legal rights,” he said in an interview.
That includes showing greater sympathy for law enforcement over protesters and ordinary citizens, Lai said.
Government officials say the national security law was necessary to restore stability after the protests, which greatly unsettled the international financial center. But the law has also raised new concerns about Hong Kong’s future as a place to do business.
In comments on Reddit in September, Bickett warned that foreigners in Hong Kong could be targeted under the law, which is broadly written and criminalizes terrorism, subversion, secession and collusion with foreign forces. On advisory from the Biden administration in July also said that US companies could be adversely affected by the changing legal landscape.
“The United States has joined many nations around the world in expressing serious concern of the erosion of human rights and fundamental freedoms of Hong Kong,” Devin Kennington, chief of American Citizen Services at the US Consulate in Hong Kong, said in a statement after Bickett’s conviction was upheld.
in a speech last month, Chief Justice Andrew Cheung acknowledged the concerns but defended the court system as impartial.
“Judicial independence in Hong Kong exists as a fact,” he said.
In his statement, Bickett said his case suggested otherwise.
“Today’s ruling is just the latest indication that the judiciary’s reputation for applying the law rationally, fairly and equally is in danger,” Bickett said.