Billy Li speaks to Janice Wong

A social worker thought he was doing the police a favour when he picked up a spent tear gas canister near his office in Tsuen Wan last week and returned it to a police station.

Instead, Lun Chi-wai, the president of the Hong Kong Social Workers’ General Union, said officers immediately gave him a warning that it was ‘inappropriate and illegal’ for him to handle the canister at all.

“It’s ridiculous! The police were the ones firing tear gas near my office building. The empty canisters had been lying there for more than a week, but they didn’t do anything about it, so what are people supposed to do?” Lun asked.

He said the shell was one of many that had been left lying around after police fired multiple rounds of tear gas in an attempt to quell a protest there on August 5, during a city-wide strike.

Lun said he thought it was dangerous just to leave the canister lying there like that.

But a lawyer confirmed that it is indeed illegal for people to pick up even spent tear-gas canisters, which are legally defined as ammunition.

The convenor of the Progressive Lawyers group, Billy Li, said even returning it to police could put people at risk of being arrested for possessing ammunition without a license – an offence that carries a maximum penalty of 14 years in prison and a fine of HK$100,000.

“If you’re picking up a used tear gas shell back to the police station, I’d say that’s fine. But I can’t assure you that there’s no risk for any arbitrary arrests from the police. So I would advise a more sensible way to deal with the used shells is to report to the police officers and ask them to collect those shells,” he said.

The police have fired more than 1900 rounds of tear gas since the anti-extradition protests began in June.