(New York) – Hong Kong authorities’ arrest of a pro-democracy figure for “seditious intent” heightens concerns of a renewed crackdown on the 2019 protest movement, Human Rights Watch said today. On March 26, 2020, police arrested district councilor Cheng Lai-king, 60, at her home two days after she reposted a message on Facebook that revealed a police officer’s identity.
“Arresting a pro-democracy politician for seeking police accountability is political persecution, not legitimate policing,” said Sophie Richardson, China director. “Hong Kong authorities should immediately drop the case against councilor Cheng Lai-king.”
The case concerns an incident involving Veby Mega Indah, a journalist for Indonesian-language Suara Hong Kong News, who was shot and blinded in one eye by a riot police officer while covering a protest in Wanchai in September.
Indah has been trying to pursue a private prosecution against the officer but has been unable to do so because he was masked and not displaying his police unique identification (UI) number at the time. The police have not released the officer’s information despite Indah’s requests and a lawsuit she filed in December pressing for such information.
Upon learning that Indah might soon miss the deadline for the private prosecution, netizens mobilized and on March 24 posted the alleged officer’s information on a Telegram group. On March 24, Cheng reposted some of that information, which included pictures of the officer taken while he was on duty in a public place, the officer’s name, and his UI number. Cheng’s post called on the officer to, “Please turn himself in! An eye for an eye!”
Following Cheng’s arrest, a Hong Kong police spokesperson said that Cheng had “illegally shared personal information,” including the officer’s address and phone number, on social media, and that she is suspected of “inciting violence and hatred.” The spokesperson said that she may also have violated an October court injunction banning “doxing” of police officers – the disclosure of personal data on the internet – and the Privacy Ordinance. Cheng was released on bail the day of her arrest.
“Seditious intent” is a crime that has not been invoked since 1952, when the British colonial government used it against the pro-Beijing newspaper Ta Kung Pao.
During the 2019 protests, both police and protesters wore masks to prevent identification. In October, the Hong Kong government imposed an anti-mask law, which makes it unlawful to wear masks during public gatherings. The ban exempts those who need to wear masks for “employment” and other reasons, and police officers continued to wear masks. Many officers did not display UI numbers on their uniform.
Over the course of the protests, numerous police officers, protesters, and journalists complained about unauthorized release of their personal information, but the police have not arrested anyone for doxing protesters or journalists. After two officers placed the Hong Kong Identification Cards of journalists – whom the police consider to be pro-protesters – in front of live TV cameras, the Hong Kong police commissioner said the officers had been “reprimanded.”
Hong Kong authorities and pro-Beijing figures have stepped up actions against the pro-democracy movement and other critical voices since December. In mid-December police froze HK$70 million (US$10 million) from Spark Alliance, a major donation fund to help pro-democracy protesters, and arrested its four members for alleged money laundering. On February 28, police arrested pro-democracy media tycoon Jimmy Lai and political activists Yeung Sum and Lee Cheuk-yan for taking part in an alleged unlawful assembly in August. Since June, the authorities have arrested over 7,500 demonstrators for their participation in the protests.
On March 20, lawyers for a pro-Beijing television station, TVB, sent a letter to pro-democracy district councilor Ho Kai-ming, accusing him of defamation after he criticized the station for “participating in political persecution.” TVB had applied to terminate its airing of programs produced by Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK), a Hong Kong public broadcaster, which released a satirical episode about the Hong Kong police in late February. The Hong Kong Communications Authority granted TVB’s request on March 4. The police have repeatedly complained about the RTHK episode, while pro-Beijing figures are pressuring the broadcaster’s chief to drop political programs.
“Hong Kong police and other authorities don’t help their credibility by cracking down on peaceful criticism,” Richardson said. “Instead of pursuing dubious prosecutions, they should allow an independent investigation of their own conduct during the protest movement.”