Saturday, December 9

Opinion: Catholic leaders’ petition to free Jimmy Lai shows politics and religion do not mix

Many believers, and not just Christians, were shocked by the recent petition signed by 10 Catholic leaders from various countries calling on the Hong Kong government to “immediately and unconditionally release” media mogul Jimmy Lai Chee-ying, who has been convicted of fraud and is awaiting trial on charges of sedition and conspiracy to collude with foreign forces.

Their shock comes from the fact these religious leaders seem to think their belief in Lai’s “innocence” is more convincing than a verdict in a court of law, or their judgment is superior.

I am not religious but I know that among the Ten Commandments is a prohibition against bearing false witness. Deceit is a moral crime, and not just for Christians.

As Exodus 23:1-3 states: “You shall not spread a false report. You shall not join hands with a wicked man to be a malicious witness. You shall not fall in with the many to do evil, nor shall you bear witness in a lawsuit, siding with the many, so as to pervert justice, nor shall you be partial to a poor man in his lawsuit.”

In our mortal world, whether one believes in the concept of innocence until proven guilty, legally, we leave the judging of a crime to the courts. Those found guilty cannot be freed simply at one’s insistence.

For Catholics, bearing false witness goes beyond perjury in a court of law. The commandment against bearing false witness is considered a broad prohibition against the misrepresentation of truth in one’s relations with others.

The essence of the commandment enjoins truthfulness and respect for others’ good name. It prohibits detraction, calumny, gossip, rash judgment, lying and the violation of secrets. Respect for the reputation of people forbids every attitude and word likely to cause unjust injury.

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, someone who assumes the moral fault of a neighbour without sufficient foundation is guilty of rash judgment. Someone who discloses, without an objectively valid reason, another’s faults and failings to people who did not know them is guilty of detraction. And someone who harms the reputation of others and gives occasion for false judgments concerning them by remarks contrary to the truth is guilty of calumny (a misrepresentation intended to harm another’s reputation).

What I understand from the above is that gossip and slander are as much a sin as bearing false witness in the literal sense in a court of law. Yet the Catholic leaders’ petition to free Lai offers no evidence of his innocence while decrying his prosecution as “persecution for supporting pro-democracy causes”.

Clearly, the petition should be considered political propaganda. Hong Kong trials have a reputation for openness. How can anyone ignore this disciplined process?

As for the all-too-easy accusation of political persecution, Western media and politicians repeat this often. But Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says political persecution should not be confused with “prosecutions genuinely arising from non-political crimes or from acts contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations”.


Jailed Hong Kong media tycoon Jimmy Lai found guilty of fraud in office lease case

Jailed Hong Kong media tycoon Jimmy Lai found guilty of fraud in office lease case

Fraud is obviously a non-political crime. Before any of the churchmen signed the petition, shouldn’t they have considered the evidence in support of Lai’s fraud conviction?

Another worrying aspect of the petition is the suggestion that judges in Hong Kong would send someone to jail simply because of his so-called pro-democracy beliefs – in effect, a not-so-subtle attack on the integrity of our judges.

US attempt to intimidate Hong Kong judges simply intolerable

In the end, the petition does the Catholic Church a disservice. It brought out the ugly face of politics in the religious world, where it does not belong. Perhaps there are redeeming features in Lai’s case; perhaps not. But it is not for people who do not care about facts or reason to imply that a jurisdiction may be corrupt or biased.

Martin Luther once said that God “would have it prohibited that any one speak evil of another even though he be guilty, and the latter know it right well; much less if he do not know it, and have it only from hearsay”. These are salutary words, in the Christian world or otherwise.

Ronny Tong, KC, SC, JP, is a former chairman of the Hong Kong Bar Association, a member of the Executive Council and convenor of the Path of Democracy

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