HONG KONG — Samuel Bickett, an American corporate lawyer in Hong Kong, was on his way to dinner in late 2019 when he saw a man hitting a teenager with a baton and stopped to intervene. The assailant turned out to be an off-duty policeman, and Bickett was arrested and charged with assaulting an officer and common assault.
On Tuesday, Bickett, 37, was convicted and denied bail ahead of sentencing next month.
The outcome added to fears among legal observers and Western officials that Hong Kong’s courts are increasingly compromised as China exerts tighter control of the city’s institutions.
Bickett, who no longer has his job as a compliance director at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, also shows how Western corporations in Hong Kong are not immune to the political changes that have shaken the financial center since anti-government protests in 2019. A police force emboldened by impunity and armed with new legal firepower — such as pandemic rules on group sizes, official edicts against chanting slogans, and a draconian security law — has put residents in more situations where they can become embroiled in the crackdown.
“There is some hope among the business community that the decline of rule of law will be [confined to] the national security law, or even the post-2019 protest cases,” said Thomas Kellogg, executive director of the Center for Asian Law at Georgetown University. “That’s not how it’s played out on the mainland.”
China’s model, he added, “doesn’t give us a high degree of confidence on where the Hong Kong judiciary will be 10 years from now.”
These concerns are heightened in cases that fall under the national security law, which Beijing imposed last June. In some of these, prosecutors have quickly brought suspects to court — sometimes around politically sensitive dates — only to ask for more time to prepare their case. They have then asked the courts to deny bail, leaving defendants locked up ahead of trial.
Hong Kong’s Justice Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Bank of America declined to comment.
Unrest flared in Hong Kong in June 2019, prompted by an extradition bill that residents feared would remove the firewall between the city’s courts, based on English common law, and China’s judicial system, which answers to the ruling Communist Party. Beijing has characterized the spontaneous protests as the work of meddlesome foreign countries.
Since then, more than 10,000 people have been arrested. About a quarter have been charged and 780 convicted as of last month, police data show.
On Wednesday, Hong Kong courts are scheduled to begin the first trial under the national security law, which outlawed vaguely defined acts such as foreign collusion, subversion and secession. Of the more than 60 people prosecuted under that law, most have been denied bail and face up to life in prison.
The defendant is a 24-year-old accused of draping a protest flag over his back before driving his motorcycle into a group of police officers. The trial will not involve a jury, but three judges chosen by Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam.
Jerome Cohen, a professor of law at New York University and the faculty director of its U.S.-Asia Law Institute, said that the atmosphere in Hong Kong has “increasingly infected” cases unrelated to the national security law.
“There seems to be dubious political influences over both” categories of cases, he said.
Bickett was not at a protest when he was arrested. He was headed to meet a friend for dinner when he saw a man hitting a teenager, who had jumped a subway turnstile, with an extendible baton. An altercation between the man, identified later as Yu Shu-sang, and other bystanders ensued.
Yu repeatedly said he was not a police officer. Footage shows him later lunge at Bickett with his baton in his right hand, before he falls over a railing. Bickett then attempts to wrestle his baton away.
Judge Arthur Lam said the officer was not concealing his identity and could not have been expected to respond as the crowd was disrespectfully asking him if he was “popo” — a slang term for the police. Bickett, he said, was not acting in self-defense, but simply wanted to snatch the baton.
In a statement shared with The Washington Post before he was jailed, Bickett said the verdict was “outrageous” and a violation of legal precedent. The former prosecutor in his case, he added, told his defense team that charges were pursued because Bickett had embarrassed the police.
Bickett’s defense team wrote to the Justice Department urging prosecutors to drop the case, according to documents seen by The Post. But William Tam, the top prosecutor, said it should proceed.
Tam’s predecessor, David Leung, resigned in August, citing differences with Justice Secretary Teresa Cheng in handling prosecutions. At the time, NYU’s Cohen said his “independence apparently led Beijing and its local minions to lose confidence in him.”
One former senior prosecutor, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive issue, said morale has been deteriorating at the department.
“We were the boss, we would tell the police what to do and they would respect our decisions” before 2019, the person said. “Now, we face a lot of pressure — not just from the police, but from the secretary for justice, senior prosecutors and others — to prosecute.”