I am obliged to tell the truth, says self-represented Hong Kong teen cleared of protest-related charge
Since he was released on bail last May, Pang Yu-him has decided to defend himself in court. It was so unlikely for a defendant to represent himself that a security guard at the trial had asked Pang, addressing him as a lawyer, where his client was. But on Thursday, the 18-year-old won the lawsuit against the Department of Justice and walked free.
Pang was first arrested on Nov. 11 in 2019, where protesters have called for a general strike across the city. He was accused of holding a laser pointer, and later charged with possession of an instrument fit and intended for unlawful use.
His aspiration to become a lawyer began with a book he read in secondary three — “Paths of Justice” by Johannes Chan, a legal scholar at the University of Hong Kong. From there, his interest grew. “I even read books that are thick and specific. That’s how I learnt. If I didn’t understand something, I would look it up on Google,” he said.
In secondary four, he scored 1400 out of 1600 in an international public exam, but he was not qualified to apply for college as he had not completed his secondary education. He then spent a year studying the International A-levels on his own, yet the exam coincided with the pro-democracy movement, which took a toll on his performance and disrupted his plans to study law.
Luckily, he became an apprentice for a barrister last summer, who eventually passed his case to barrister Douglas Kwok. Another defendant in the same case had pleaded guilty and was sentenced to three months in jail. Kwok advised him to do the same for a lighter sentence, yet Pang refused.
A week before the trial began, Pang made up his mind and chose to represent himself, despite the objection of his mentor, who even called his mother to dissuade him. “It is not about whether I go to jail or how long the sentence is. To plead guilty, I have to agree with the facts of the case, which I don’t,” he solemnly explained to his mother.
To him, pleading guilty “was never an option. I have not considered it, not even for a second.”
But Pang admitted he was initially unsure how he could argue his case. “I have not done anything wrong. But that cannot be my argument,” he said. However, as he soon realized, the trial offered him an opportunity to confront those testifying against him and he pledged to make the most out of it. “Since someone is lying, I have at least the responsibility to point out the truth,” he said.
Pang was groomed up for the trial, pairing a dark grey suit with a navy tie and a golden tie clip. He was slightly stunned by magistrate Veronica Heung, who rebuked him for a last-minute decision. But Heung was also respectful and never interrupted him, he noted.
As an amateur, he did his best to be professional. “I hope the court doesn’t think I am joking around and use the court as a platform to make a political statement,” said Pang. To his relief, halfway through the trial, the magistrate began to address him as “the defense” rather than “the defendant,” which he interpreted as an endorsement.
During the trial, he handled all the administrative work himself, including applying to obtain the written testimony of the defendants and court recording, listening to 16 hours of the recording and writing the closing statement.
At the court, he also confronted the police officer, who had arrested him, which Pang described as a test of psychological strength. “Our positions and identities are different, but he remains the officer who had arrested me. It is quite difficult to interrogate him as a third-party,” he said.
The testimony of the officer was not consistent with his memories of the incident. Some refused to admit it, even after they were caught observing the trial before giving their own testimonies. “They are trying to cover things up. As an observer, I find it absurd. I am shocked that they lie in court, even about small details,” said Pang.
Another point that befuddled him is why a court can determine how a defendant uses a tool for a certain purpose without any reasonable suspicion. “I wouldn’t think it’s just if I win or it’s dark if I lose,” said Pang. But under the circumstances and considering the evidence presented, his conviction would show the decline of the rule of law and in that case, he would appeal, he added.
The ordeal is likely not over yet, as the Department of Justice might still appeal against the acquittal, as it had in previous protest-related cases. Should he be convicted, Pang expected to be imprisoned, but he has also mentally prepared himself for that scenario. “No one wants to go to jail. But I would not be the only one to be sent to jail and it is not a particularly long stint,” said Pang. “I would consider it my contribution to the social movement.”
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