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Disqualified lawmakers Yau Wai-ching, 25, (L) and Baggio Leung, 30, pose outside government headquarters in Hong Kong, China on March 28, 2017. The two were arrested on April 26, 2017.  © 2017 Reuters

(New York, April 28, 2017) – The Hong Kong authorities’ arrest of 11 pro-democracy advocates over two days raises grave concerns of a politically motivated crackdown, Human Rights Watch said today. While all have been released on bail, they face prosecution and possible prison sentences.

The authorities should drop all charges based on the advocates’ roles in peaceful protests or other politically motivated grounds, Human Rights Watch said. Hong Kong authorities have prosecuted at least 18 pro-democracy political leaders in the territory since the end of the massive Umbrella Movement in December 2014.

“Prosecution as persecution seems to be the new norm for the treatment of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy activists,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. “Hong Kong authorities’ abuse of the law to intimidate dissent increasingly resembles tactics employed just across the border.”

On April 26, 2017, the authorities arrested Yau Wai-qing and Baggio Leung Chung-hang, two pro-independence activists and former legislators, on charges of “unlawful assembly” and “attempted forced entry.” The charges stem from the pair’s attempt to attend a Legislative Council meeting on November 2, 2016, after they were barred from meetings pending a judicial review of their council membership.

Nine more activists were arrested the next day, April 27, 2017, and charged with participating in unlawful assembly, obstructing police, and inciting disorderly conduct in a public place. The charges stem from a November 6, 2016 protest against a decision by China’s top legislative body that forced Hong Kong courts to disqualify Yau and Leung. The nine include:

  • Avery Ng Man-yuen, chairman of the League of Social Democrats;
  • Derek Lam Shun-hin and Ivan Lam Long-yin of the Demosisto Party;
  • Dickson Chau Ka-faat and Chan Man-wai of the League of Social Democrats;
  • Sammy Ip and Lo Tak-cheong of the group Student Fight for Democracy;
  • Cheng Pui-lun, former president of Lingnan University’s student union; and
  • Chow Shu-wing, People Power.

The organizers of the November protest, which thousands of people attended, had obtained a permit. But police accused some demonstrators of participating in an “unlawful assembly” when they took an unapproved route toward the central government’s Liaison Office, a crime under the Public Order Ordinance. Police then ordered the protesters to disperse.

The United Nations Human Rights Committee has criticized Hong Kong’s Public Order Ordinance for possibly “facilitat[ing] excessive restrictions” to basic rights. The law, which requires that people planning processions involving more than 30 people and assemblies with more than 50 must apply for and receive a “letter of no objection” from the government in advance, is incompatible with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which applies to Hong Kong. Human Rights Watch has repeatedly called for the ordinance to be brought into conformity with international human rights standards.

The crimes of obstructing police and forced entry carry a maximum sentence of two years in prison, while the crimes of unlawful assembly and inciting disorderly conduct in a public place carry up to five years in prison.

Since the culmination of the Umbrella Movement protests in December 2014, about 18 Hong Kong pro-democracy leaders have faced court proceedings, most of them for participating or leading peaceful protests including the Umbrella Movement. They face a range of charges, including unlawful assembly, inciting unlawful assembly, inciting public nuisance, conspiracy, obstructing the police, and assaulting a police officer.

In addition to Yao Wai-qing and Baggio Leung, four other pro-democracy legislators face disqualifications due to lawsuits filed by the Hong Kong government on the basis of the November 2016 ruling of China’s National People’s Congress Standing Committee on the qualifications of Legislative Council members. The four include Lau Siu-lai, Nathan Law Kwun-chung, Edward Yiu Chung-yim, and Leung Kwok-hung.

The arrests are a break with Hong Kong’s longstanding tradition of tolerating peaceful expression and demonstrations. And they are particularly alarming in light of central government advisers’ statements in March that Beijing would use more “legal means” to strengthen control over  Hong Kong, particularly over “principle issues” such as national security, Human Rights Watch said.

Pro-democracy activists have announced that they are going to stage “a large civil disobedience protest” on July 1, the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover by Britain to Chinese sovereignty. China’s President Xi Jinping is expected to visit the territory for that occasion, his first trip to Hong Kong since he assumed formal power in 2013.

“As the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover approaches, the territory’s autonomy looks increasingly fragile,” Richardson said. “Hong Kong authorities can take a major step toward reclaiming the mantle of democracy and rule of law by dropping all charges against peaceful protest.”

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