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Joshua Wong, center right, and Ivan Lam, center left, were led into a prison van before their court appearance in Hong Kong on Wednesday. © 2020 Kin Cheung/Associated Press

(New York) – Hong Kong authorities should drop all criminal cases and release from custody those arrested or convicted for their peaceful participation in pro-democracy protests, Human Rights Watch said today. These include Joshua Wong, Agnes Chow, and Ivan Lam, who were sentenced on December 2, 2020, to 13-and-a-half months, 10 months, and 7 months respectively for inciting, organizing, and participating in an unauthorized assembly, an offense under Hong Kong’s Public Order Ordinance.

The charges stem from speeches the trio made to crowds at the Hong Kong Police Headquarters on June 21, 2019, part of the six-month pro-democracy protests in 2019.

“Hong Kong is descending at a dizzying pace from a city of freedoms to a mainland Chinese city that criminalizes peaceful protests,” said Maya Wang, senior China researcher. “The Hong Kong authorities should quash the convictions of these activists immediately and drop all further cases involving peaceful political activity.”

On June 21, 2019, a crowd of about 10,000 people had gathered outside the Hong Kong Police Headquarters calling for the chief of police, Lo Wai-chung, to speak to them. The crowd surrounded the headquarters for over 15 hours, refusing to let officers in or out of the station, while pelting eggs at the building and at the officers standing guard. The protesters were demanding an explanation and accountability for police brutality during a protest on June 12, when police fired teargas, beanbag rounds, and rubber bullets at peaceful protesters and beat them with batons.

In the court judgment handed down on December 2, the presiding magistrate stated that although “nobody got hurt” during the June 21 protest, “There was a potential possibility … of it escalating into violence.” She justified her decision by saying that in leading “derogatory” chants toward police officers, the trio “had challenged police power” and that the obstruction of traffic and public services was “more serious than in other unauthorized assemblies.”

Hong Kong’s Public Order Ordinance 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 restrictions” on basic rights. Human Rights Watch has urged the Hong Kong government to amend the law to bring it into conformity with international standards on freedom of assembly.

In another case, on December 3, the pro-democracy media tycoon Jimmy Lai was denied bail in a case in which his printing business allegedly violated the terms of an office lease. An influential figure in Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement and a longstanding critic of the Chinese Communist Party, Lai, 72, will now be held in custody until his court appearance in April 2021. Lai faces at least four other charges under the Public Order Ordinance for his peaceful participation in various 2019 protests.

Since the Chinese government imposed a sweeping and draconian National Security Law on June 30, Hong Kong and Chinese authorities have accelerated the use of the criminal law to target critics. The law created specialized secret security agencies, denies fair trial rights, provides sweeping new powers to the police, increases restraints on civil society and the media, and weakens judicial oversight.

In just several months, the government has used arrests, intimidation, and encouragement of people to report on one another to purge people who promote democracy in Hong Kong from key sectors of society including education, the media, and the legislature. Four pro-democracy members of the legislature have been expelled, while other pro-democracy legislators resigned in protest. On December 3, Ted Hui, a pro-democracy legislator who gained prominence during the 2019 protests for standing with protesters on the front lines, announced that he and his family have had to leave Hong Kong for their safety and for him to avoid long, arbitrary prison sentences.

“The speed and intensity with which Beijing is moving to reshape and control Hong Kong is frightening,” Wang said. “Governments should work together to impose targeted sanctions on those Chinese and Hong Kong officials responsible for abuses, and to create an international human rights monitoring mechanism specifically on China at the United Nations.”

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