A former Bank of America lawyer in Hong Kong has been sent back to prison for assaulting a plainclothes police officer during pro-democracy protests two years ago, in a case that analysts said highlighted the legal risks for foreigners working in the city.
Hong Kong’s High Court on Tuesday rejected the appeal of Samuel Bickett, an American former compliance director at BofA. He will serve the remainder of his four-and-a-half month sentence in prison, having already spent seven weeks in detention last year before being granted bail.
In December 2019, Bickett, 37, intervened in a scuffle between civilians and a man with an extendable baton. Bickett had said he was “neutralising” the man as he tried to grab hold of the weapon.
The man, who did not immediately reveal he was an officer, later said he drew his baton as he was trying to apprehend a teenager who had jumped a turnstile and then slipped free.
Prosecutors focused on whether Bickett had already known the man was an officer when confronting him and if his actions were justifiable, arguing the American had applied “excessive force” on the officer.
Bickett’s lawyers said he was trying to “get control of the baton” from the man whose identity was unclear “before any other violence took place”. Police guidelines require officers to clearly identify themselves when conducting duties.
But Judge Esther Toh said she saw “no merit” in Bickett’s arguments in rejecting his appeal.
During a hearing in November, Toh questioned why Bickett applied force to the officer, even though he initially denied being a policeman when questioned by a passer-by and said “yes” only on being asked a second time.
A spokesperson from the US state department said they had been monitoring Bickett’s appeal while urging the city’s government to “ensure the courts are free from political interference”.
Bank of America declined to comment.
Thomas E Kellogg, executive director of Georgetown University’s Center for Asian Law, said the case sent “a very worrying signal about the decline of the rule of law in Hong Kong”.
“Many expats will take note,” he added. “It’s not clear that the legal system will protect them, especially if, like Bickett, they are facing off against the Hong Kong police . . . even US citizens based in Hong Kong can face real barriers to a fair trial.”
The US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, an independent agency of the US government, said in its annual report to Congress that Bickett’s case was a warning that “expats can also no longer expect to be shielded from government scrutiny and even arrest”.
Critics of Hong Kong authorities believe the case also reflects broader concerns about police accountability. No officers have faced trial over accusations of brutality during the pro-democracy protests, but most of the city’s opposition has been arrested or jailed after Beijing imposed a sweeping national security law on the territory in 2020.
Bickett moved to Hong Kong nine years ago and told the Financial Times before his appeal that he had not been employed by Bank of America since April.
“I don’t regret anything,” he said. “I love this city. I care about the rule of law. And so I am determined to appeal and to keep fighting.”
Bickett added in a statement following the ruling that the judgment showed “members of the Police Force are no longer subject to the same laws as the rest of us”.
The ruling “is just the latest indication that the judiciary’s reputation for applying the law rationally, fairly and equally is in danger”, he said.
Bickett said he would appeal against the ruling.