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Hong Kong: Investigate Handling of “Umbrella Movement”

Drop Charges against Peaceful Protesters, Restart Electoral Reform

(New York) - The Hong Kong government should drop charges against peaceful protesters and launch a thorough investigation into its handling of the “Umbrella Movement” pro-democracy protests between September 28 and December 15, 2014, Human Rights Watch said today.

It should also restart the reform process to realize the equal right of Hong Kong people to elect and to be elected in the selection of top leaders.

Student leader Alex Chow is taken away by the police outside the government headquarters in Hong Kong on December 11, 2014.  © 2014 Reuters

“A year after Hong Kong people staged an unprecedented protest for democracy, the government continues to deny this fundamental right, while pressing charges against student leaders for organizing the peaceful movement,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. “This raises real concerns about adherence to international human rights standards.”

The Umbrella Movement protests were Hong Kong’s longest-running demonstration, during which peaceful protesters blocked major thoroughfares in Mongkok, Admiralty and Causeway Bay. The protests, which ended peacefully, called for genuine universal suffrage for Hong Kong people, a right guaranteed in the city’s functioning constitution, the Basic Law. 

Although Hong Kong enjoys an independent judiciary and a professional police force, there are growing concerns over Beijing’s encroachment on these institutions, and on the rights to political participation, expression, and assembly. In July, China enacted a new State Security Law which for the first time stipulates “responsibilities” for people in Hong Kong to protect national security, raising concerns in Hong Kong as the territory’s inhabitants have long resisted calls for enacting such legislation domestically. 

In September, chief of the central government's liaison office in Hong Kong, Zhang Xiaoming, delivered a lengthy speech that caused considerable alarm in Hong Kong.  Zhang said that the Chief Executive, as a pivotal position appointed by and accountable to the central government as well as to Hong Kong, “transcends the executive, legislature and judiciary.” He further stated that Hong Kong did not have “separation of powers” and that “the separation of powers political system… cannot be applied to the HKSAR in its entirety.”

The central government’s liaison office has been taking an increasingly prominent role in commenting on local affairs, and these remarks have been widely interpreted as a signal that Beijing intends to increasingly assert authority over Hong Kong through the chief executive, even in matters reserved to local determination.


Charges against Protesters, Police and Counter-Protesters

About one thousand people, mostly pro-democracy protestors, were arrested in connection with the “Umbrella Movement.”  They were arrested for crimes including “unlawful assembly,” “obstructing police,” “assaulting officers,” and/or “contempt of court.” Most were quickly released and only 160 have been charged so far; among them, about 30 percent have been convicted for “assaulting officers,” “criminal damage,” “unlawful assembly” and other crimes. In a number of cases, magistrates threw out the charges because officers’ statements against the protesters were “contradictory” or “unreliable.”  In September 2014, at the start of the Occupy protests, the court ordered the release of three student leaders, including Joshua Wong, who were held on charges including “unlawful assembly,” stating that their detention was "unreasonably long."

In August 2015 authorities announced charges against student leaders Joshua Wong, Alex Chow and Nathan Law for “unlawful assembly” and “inciting others to take part in an unlawful assembly,” which could result in sentences of up to five years.

Some of the charges against protestors stem from alleged violations of Hong Kong’s Public Order Ordinance, which requires organizers to notify police of demonstrations involving more than 30 people seven days in advance, and requires organizers to get a “notice of no objection” from the government before proceeding. The UN Human Rights Committee has criticized the law, saying that “it may facilitate excessive restriction” to basic rights, and Human Rights Watch has urged the Hong Kong government to amend the law, as it is incompatible with international standards on the freedom of assembly.

The police’s internal review board, the Complaints Against Police Office (CAPO), is mandated to “oversee[s] the investigation and successful resolution of all complaints made both externally and internally against members of the force.” CAPO has said it has received 2,427 complaints against police related to the Umbrella Movement between September 2014 and March 2015; it submitted only 150 cases to its supervisory body, the Independent Police Complaints Council (IPCC).  The number was reduced because some cases were duplicative, while others were not deemed to stem from “first-hand reports.” These included alleged assaults by police and abuse of power.  Among these 150 cases, IPCC is only investigating 16, because complainants have either withdrawn the complaints or cannot be reached. To date, only those officers caught on film beating protester Ken Tsang have been arrested. As a result of disagreements between the CAPO and IPCC, no criminal proceedings have yet been taken against officer Franklin Chu, whose beating of a non-resisting protester in Mongkok was also filmed. That case may have to go to Chief Executive C.Y. Leung for a decision if the two bodies continue to disagree.

At least six individuals have been convicted of wounding or assaulting pro-democracy protestors and a journalist in five incidents in Mongkok and Admiralty. 

But none of those convicted appear to have been involved in the assault of peaceful protesters in Mongkok and Causeway Bay on October 3, during which groups of unidentified, some masked, men assaulted protesters while police failed to assist the protesters for hours. Protesters and video footage also showed that officers let suspected assailants leave without having taken down their details or arresting them. Although police announced on October 4 that 19 suspected assailants with organized crime backgrounds were arrested, none of those people appear to have been prosecuted or convicted.


Lack of Thorough Investigation into Handling of Protests

Hong Kong’s chief of security has stated that investigations into individual cases of police misconduct and violent attacks on protesters through existing mechanisms are adequate. The IPCC, as noted by the UN Human Rights Committee in its Concluding Observations in 2013, has limited powers and lacks independence. It only has “advisory and oversight functions to monitor and review the activities of the CAPO” and its members are political appointees chosen by the Chief Executive. The HRC has recommended that the Hong Kong government “take necessary measures to establish a fully independent mechanism” to conduct investigations about police abuse and to empower it to “formulate binding decisions.”

Absent a fully independent body to check police abuse, Human Rights Watch reiterates its earlier call for an independent and thorough investigation into the government’s handling of the Umbrella Movement protests. Human Rights Watch documented the police’s use of excessive force in a number of occasions, at times without warning, leading to injuries of protesters. It also noted reports of police officers’ apparent toleration of attacks on protesters in Mongkok and Admiralty on October 3.

A March public opinion survey conducted by Hong Kong University showed public confidence in the IPCC has sunk to a historic low, largely due to public perception that the body failed to act effectively in response to complaints about police behavior during the Occupy protests. Satisfaction with the Hong Kong police has also seemed to have slipped in 2014 and 2015 according to another survey.

“Unless the government orders a thorough investigation into the handling of the protests, the police’s reputation will be stained for many years to come,” Richardson said.


Prospect for Democracy Dimmed

The political impasse stemming from Beijing’s refusal to grant Hong Kong people genuine universal suffrage continues. In June 2015, Hong Kong’s semi-democratic legislature rejected the electoral reform package for the selection of the Chief Executive proposed by the Hong Kong government and backed by Beijing. Since then, the central government has insisted that this framework for the selection of the Chief Executive -- which would expand the franchise but allow a Beijing-dominated nominating committee to screen out candidates it did not like—is its only proposal.

In its August 31, 2014 decision, China’s top legislative body, which announced the framework for screening candidates, also ruled against electoral reforms for the selection of members to the Legislative Council elections in 2016. The same decision also predicated reforms to the Legislative Council on the framework for the election for Chief Executive, meaning that until the latter issue is first resolved, the Legislative Council is also unlikely to be democratized.

In order to restart the electoral reform process in Hong Kong, the Chief Executive needs to first submit a report to Beijing justifying the need for further democratization. The Legislative Council can also introduce a new bill reflecting the ongoing demand for full political rights.

“Hong Kong people went onto the streets not only for their rights to democracy but also to express alarm over erosion of their treasured autonomy,” Richardson said.  “The Hong Kong government has the power to push back against Beijing’s overreach, and to ensure that the institutions that protect human rights continue to uphold the law, not succumb to political pressure.” 

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