Hong Kong: Freedom of expression under attack as scores of peaceful protesters face “chilling” prosecutions

 

The Hong Kong government must drop prosecutions aimed at having a chilling effect on freedom of expression in the city, Amnesty International said ahead of the third anniversary of the 2014 pro-democracy Umbrella Movement.

A cloud of uncertainty hangs over Hong Kong. The government’s stance is having a chilling effect on peaceful assembly and freedom of expression.
Mabel Au, Director of Amnesty International Hong Kong.

Three years on from the start of the unprecedented 79-day protest in late 2014, scores of protesters, who were arrested for their involvement in the largely peaceful protests, remain in legal limbo, uncertain if they will face charges.

“Three years since the Umbrella Movement protests, a cloud of uncertainty hangs over Hong Kong. The government’s stance is having a chilling effect on peaceful assembly and freedom of expression,” said Mabel Au, Director of Amnesty International Hong Kong.

“The government must drop prosecutions which have the effect of deterring people from participating in peaceful protests, particularly on sensitive issues such as Hong Kong’s autonomy and democracy. The authorities’ continued obfuscation has left protesters in legal limbo and is detrimental to human rights in Hong Kong.”

Chilling effect

According to government figures, 955 people were arrested during the Umbrella Movement. After the protests, the government further arrested 48 people, mostly key individuals involved in the pro-democracy demonstrations. They were arrested for a range of offences including “unlawful assembly” and ”unauthorized assembly”.

Many of them were released after their arrest, but police notified them that criminal investigations were still ongoing and they would be re-arrested and charged, should there be sufficient evidence to prosecute them.

Among the 48 prominent activists who were arrested after the Umbrella Movement protests were Associate Professor Benny Tai, Rev. Chu Yiu-ming and Chan Kin-man, arrested for “unlawful assembly” in 2015. In March this year, the charges were changed to “public nuisance”, ambiguous charges with a maximum penalty of seven years imprisonment.

Earlier this month, Amnesty International wrote to Hong Kong’s Secretary for Justice, Rimsky Yuen, to ask for clarification on the legal situation of all those arrested. In its reply, the Department of Justice, stated that as of 31 August, 225 people who were arrested have or are undergoing judicial proceedings.

The Department of Justice also stressed that in two cases those prosecuted for “unlawful assembly” “were not peaceful but…involved violence.” While Amnesty International acknowledges there were isolated incidents of small-scale violence, the protests were overwhelmingly peaceful. The presence of smaller groups of people within a public assembly who use violence is not a sufficient reason for the police to restrict, prohibit or disperse the whole assembly.

Many of the charges against activists are for actions in largely peaceful protests that are protected under international human rights law and that are supposed to be protected under Hong Kong law.

Vague charges

The charge of “unlawful assembly” and other vague provisions in Hong Kong’s Public Order Ordinance and their implementation have been repeatedly criticized by the UN Human Rights Committee for failing to fully meet international human rights law on the right to peaceful assembly.

In August, student leaders Joshua Wong, Alex Chow and Nathan Law, were handed jail terms between six to eight months after being convicted under these vague offences for their roles in a demonstration that helped spark the Umbrella Movement. The court originally ordered community service or suspended sentences but prosecutors successfully appealed, seeking harsher penalties.

“The arbitrary arrests and prosecutions of Umbrella Movement participants using vague and broad charges reeks of political motivation, aimed at silencing those promoting democracy in Hong Kong,” said Mabel Au.  

Background

The UN Human Rights Committee monitors compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, an international treaty binding on Hong Kong and enshrined in its Basic Law.