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30 April 2019

Sentencing of leaders of Umbrella Movement threatens rights to freedom of assembly and expression in Hong Kong

Eight out of the nine human rights defenders who led the pro-democracy Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong received prison sentences on 24 April 2019. The sentencing of these human rights defenders was based on charges that have never been used against peaceful demonstrators in Hong Kong before, such as the “incitement to incite public nuisance”. It sends a chilling message of the territory’s attitude towards democracy and human rights, and threatens the rights to freedom of assembly and expression in Hong Kong.

The Umbrella Movement, also known as the Occupy Movement, was a pro-democracy mass civil disobedience movement that shut down key sections of the city for 79 consecutive days from 28 September to 15 December 2014. More than 100,000 peaceful demonstrators took to the streets to protest against the requirement for candidates for the position of Hong Kong’s head of government in the 2017 elections to be exclusively vetted by a pro-Beijing 1,200-person committee. The demonstrators considered the requirement, which was imposed by the central administration in Beijing, to be an affront to the right of “true universal suffrage”, guaranteed by the constitution of Hong Kong and promised to the people of Hong Kong during the 1997 handover of the territory from the United Kingdom to China.

The nine human rights defenders who led the Umbrella Movement are Benny Tai Yiu-ting, a legal academic at the University of Hong Kong; Chan Kin-man, a professor of sociology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Chu Yiu-ming, a minister at the Chai Wan Baptist Church; Raphael Wong Ho-ming, leader of the League of Social Democrats; Shiu Ka-chun, a social worker and member of the Legislative Council of Hong Kong; Lee Wing-tat, a former member of the Legislative Council of Hong Kong; Tanya Chan Suk-chong, a member of the Legislative Council of Hong Kong; Eason Chung Yiu-wa and Tommy Cheung Sau-yin, both former student union leaders.

All nine human rights defenders underwent a 20-day trial that lasted from 19 November 2018 to 14 December 2018 at the West Kowloon Magistrates’ Court. On 9 April 2019, they were convicted on various charges related to the offence of “public nuisance,” including “incitement to incite public nuisance.” Supporters of the human rights defenders believe that the court used the “public nuisance” offence, which falls under common law, as it allows for more severe sentences compared to similar charges under statutory law.

On 24 April 2019, the court handed down sentences to the nine defenders. The three founders of the movement, Benny Tai Yiu-ting, Chan Kin-man and Chu Yiu-ming, were each sentenced to 16 months in prison for “conspiracy to commit public nuisance,” though the court suspended Chu Yiu-ming’s sentence for two years in view of his advanced age and his previous contribution to society. Benny Tai Yiu-ting and Chan Kin-man were also sentenced to another eight months in prison, to be served concurrently with their other sentence, for “incitement to commit public nuisance.”

The remaining six human rights defenders all received sentences for both “incitement to commit public nuisance” and “incitement to incite public nuisance,” with the exception of Lee Wing-tat, who was only found guilty of the former. Shiu Ka-chun and Raphael Wong Ho-ming were sentenced to eights months’ imprisonment to be served immediately. Eason Chung Yiu-wa and Lee Wing-tat also received eight months in prison but had their sentences suspended for two years in view of their young age and past contribution to society, respectively.

Tommy Cheung Sau-yin was sentenced to 200 hours of community service to be completed within a year, while Tanya Chan Suk-chong’s sentencing was postponed to 10 June 2019 due to her health.

Although the “one country, two systems” policy, implemented since the 1997 handover, allows Hong Kong to have its own autonomous government that is free from influence of the Beijing administration, over the years, the central government has been increasingly assertive over the territory. The reprisals against the pro-democracy human rights defenders not only mark a new low for the rights to freedom of assembly and expression in Hong Kong but also signify Beijing’s growing influence over the local government.

These reprisals, the harshest since the conviction of three pro-democracy student leaders and human rights defenders (Alex Chow Yong-kang, Nathan Law Kwun-chung, and Joshua Wong Chi-fung) in August 2017, are also an aggravation of the trend of rapidly shrinking civil society space in Hong Kong. As observed by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression, and the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, it is no coincidence that this deterioration of freedom of expression and assembly has occurred alongside the “tightening of control over the region by mainland authorities.”

Front Line Defenders expresses grave concern over the sentencing of the human rights defenders as well as the ongoing reprisals against those who have been fighting for democracy in Hong Kong to be implemented in accordance with the functioning constitution of the territory, the Basic Law of Hong Kong. Front Line Defenders also notes with concern the stifling effect that these sentences will have on the rights to freedom of assembly and expression, and urges the authorities in Hong Kong to immediately and unconditionally release the human rights defenders.