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20 April 2020

Arrests of human rights defenders threaten rights to freedom of assembly and expression in Hong Kong

20th April 2020

Front Line Defenders condemns the arrests on 18 April 2020 of 15 pro-democracy figures in Hong Kong, including human rights defenders, for their alleged role in “organising and participating in unlawful assemblies” in August and October 2019. These arrests appear to be politically motivated and have a chilling effect on the exercise of the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and expression, which are guaranteed by Hong Kong’s Basic Law as well as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

The 15 individuals arrested are: Au Nok-hin (區諾軒), Figo Chan Ho-wun (陳皓桓), Albert Ho Chun-yan (何俊仁), Cyd Ho Sau-lan (何秀蘭), Jimmy Lai Chee-ying (黎智英), Lee Cheuk-yan (李卓人), Martin Lee Chu-ming (李柱銘), Leung Kwok-hung (梁國雄), Leung Yiu-chung (梁耀忠), Avery Ng Man-yuen (吳文遠), Margaret Ng Ngoi-yee (吳靄儀), Richard Tsoi Yiu-cheong (蔡耀昌), Sin Chung-kai (單仲偕), Raphael Wong Ho-ming (黃浩銘), and Yeung Sum (楊森). They have been released on bail and are scheduled to appear in court to hear the charges against them on 18 May 2020.

Many of these 15 individuals, in their personal or professional capacity as social activists, lawyers, elected legislators, and political party members, have long engaged in human rights work. They have advocated on issues affecting the rights of people both in Hong Kong and in mainland China, such as accountability for the killings of protesters in Beijing during the 1989 pro-democracy movement, and the Hong Kong government’s proposed amendments to the extradition bill in 2019. These triggered a wave of protests that eventually evolved into a mass pro-democracy movement.

Over the years, Albert Ho, Lee Cheuk-yan, Leung Kwok-hung, Richard Tsoi and several others who were arrested on 18 April 2020 have frequently spoken up against the persecution of human rights lawyers and defenders in mainland China. They regularly organised protests in front of the mainland government’s Liaison Office in Hong Kong to call for the release of detained or imprisoned Chinese human rights defenders. Margaret Ng and Martin Lee, who are senior lawyers and former legislators, were the recipients of the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Award in 2019. Since the anti-extradition bill protests began in June 2019, many of them have also publicly urged participants to ensure the assemblies and other tactics to promote their demands are peaceful, rational, and non-violent.

Under Hong Kong’s Public Order Ordinance (POO), organisers of public processions involving more than thirty people must notify police seven days in advance, and obtain a “notice of no objection” from the police before proceeding. Public assemblies for which prior notice is not given or those to which the police object, but which proceed anyway are considered “unlawful” and participation in them is a prosecutable offence. Unlike in mainland China, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) applies in Hong Kong. The UN Human Rights Committee, which monitors compliance with the treaty, cautioned in 2013 that implementation of the POO may facilitate “excessive restriction” on the right to peaceful assembly.

International human rights law and standards protecting the right to peaceful assembly impose on States an obligation to facilitate and accommodate the exercise of this right. Governments are thus advised against regimes where assemblies require prior government permission to proceed because having to ask for it negates the principle that peaceful assembly is a fundamental right. It follows that authorities should, to the best of their ability, accommodate even “unlawful” assemblies as long as these are peaceful. Isolated acts of violence by some protesters should not be attributed to other peaceful protesters nor should these acts be enough to render an entire assembly violent. Restrictions on peaceful assemblies must comply with the principles of legality, necessity and proportionality, and law enforcement must exercise maximum restraint when handling protests that have turned violent.

Front Line Defenders believes that rather than harassing pro-democracy activists and human rights defenders, the Government of Hong Kong should be pursuing an independent, impartial and effective investigation into allegations of excessive use of force, ill-treatment of detainees, and harassment of human rights observers, medics, social workers, and journalists by law enforcement during the protests since June 2019, for which there is credible evidence.

Concerned governments and UN human rights experts have made similar recommendations. In a public statement on 12 September 2019, following concerns about violence against protesters and human rights defenders in Hong Kong, four UN Special Procedures mandate holders reminded the Hong Kong government of its obligations under the ICCPR to “protect the safety and rights of those who participate in assemblies and create an environment conducive to a diverse and pluralistic expression of ideas and dissent from government policy.”

In an op-ed in a Hong Kong newspaper on 30 November 2019, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, said the only way out of the political crisis for the Hong Kong government is through “a broad, open and inclusive dialogue with the whole community” which should also include a proper and independent investigation into allegations of use of excessive use of force by the police. Bachelet warned that “if governments and security forces treat their people as enemies”, they “end up increasing the feeling among many that they are not being heard and cause their grievances to fester and expand.”

In January 2020, UN human rights experts wrote to the Hong Kong authorities seeking explanation about the inappropriate use of chemical agents, including hazardous substances, against human rights defenders, protesters, medics and others when dispersing the assemblies. In February 2020, they followed up with another letter to Hong Kong raising concern about “the harassment, intimidation and arrest of healthcare workers, restrictions imposed on impartial healthcare, and the misuse of healthcare transport, facilities, and confidential information” during the protests last year.

Front Line Defenders believes that arresting and charging individuals who have engaged in peaceful advocacy creates a dangerous and disabling environment for all those who work to promote and defend human rights and the rule of law in Hong Kong. Such judicial harassment directly undercuts the government’s ability to effectively address the root causes of widespread and deep-seated public grievances. Ultimately, these actions against human rights defenders erode the rule of law guaranteed under Hong Kong law, and are inconsistent with the Hong Kong government’s own legal obligations to respect and protect human rights under international law.

Front Line Defenders calls on the relevant authorities in Hong Kong to immediately drop all charges against the arrested human rights defenders and refrain from all forms of harassment against human rights defenders and other individuals who are peacefully exercising, advocating for and defending basic rights and freedoms in Hong Kong.