(New York) – Hong Kong authorities should cease politically motivated prosecutions of pro-democracy activists, Human Rights Watch said today. They should immediately drop charges and quash convictions in cases involving Hong Kong’s Public Order Ordinance, which places excessive restrictions on the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.
The police arrested Joshua Wong, 23, a prominent leader of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement, on September 24, 2020 and charged him with participation in an “unauthorized assembly” and for violating Hong Kong’s ban on face masks in 2019. Koo Sze Yiu, a veteran activist, and two other unnamed protesters were also arrested. Wong has been jailed twice for a total of eight months between 2017 and 2019 on charges of unlawful assembly and contempt of court.
“The Hong Kong authorities keep dredging up dubious cases against Joshua Wong in a heavy-handed attempt to silence him,” said Sophie Richardson, China director. “Hong Kong and Chinese authorities should realize that people in Hong Kong have responded to attacks on pro-democracy voices with ever greater resolve in calling for human rights.”
The two latest charges against Wong stem from his participation in an unauthorized protest on October 5, 2019, against the Hong Kong chief executive’s invocation of emergency powers to enact a broad ban on protesters wearing face masks. The “unlawful assembly” charge is based on alleged violations of Hong Kong’s Public Order Ordinance, which requires organizers to notify police of demonstrations involving more than 30 people at least seven days in advance, and requires organizers to get a “notice of no objection” from the government before proceeding. The United Nations Human Rights Committee has criticized the law, saying that “it may facilitate excessive restriction” to basic rights. Human Rights Watch has urged the Hong Kong government to amend the law because it is incompatible with international standards on freedom of assembly.
The charge of “unlawful assembly” carries up to five years in prison, while violating the mask ban can result in up to one year in prison and a maximum HK$25,000 (US$3,200) fine.
Wong also faces four other charges for his participation in two protests. He is accused of “inciting others to participate in unauthorized assembly,” “organizing unauthorized assembly,” and “participating in unauthorized assembly” in relation to a protest on June 21, 2019, during which protesters surrounded and threw eggs at the Hong Kong Police Headquarters in Wanchai. Wong is also charged with “participating in unauthorized assembly” for participating in the annual vigil commemorating the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre, which the police banned for the first time this year purportedly due to Covid-19 restrictions.
In violation of international human rights law, the Hong Kong government also barred Wong from running for office in both the Legislative Council and the lower level District Council solely due to his peaceful political advocacy for democracy. Beginning in June 2020, Wong has also been repeatedly followed and photographed by unknown individuals whom he suspects to be mainland security agents
Since the 2014 Umbrella Movement protests, there has been a surge of politically motivated arrests and prosecutions in Hong Kong. These arrests accelerated following the 2019 protests. In February 2020, the authorities arrested the pro-democracy media tycoon Jimmy Lai, and former lawmakers Lee Cheuk-yan and Yeung Sum relating to their participation in the 2019 protests. In mid-April, Hong Kong police arrested 24 prominent pro-democracy leaders, including the 81-year-old barrister Martin Lee, for “organizing and participating in unlawful assemblies” during the 2019 protests.
In late June, mainland authorities imposed a draconian National Security Law on Hong Kong that introduces national security police units in Hong Kong and vague restrictions on a vast swathe of rights protected under international human rights law. In August, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam invoked Covid-19 concerns to postpone Legislative Council elections, slated for September, for a full year.
“Pro-democracy activists and the rights they rely on are on the ropes in Hong Kong,” Richardson said. “It’s up to the courts to recognize – and reject – these politicized prosecutions.”