Harassment and criminalisation of activists and journalists in Hong Kong continues unabated
Hong Kong’s civic space rating remains as ‘repressed’, according to the CIVICUS Monitor. Since 2019 there has been an alarming deterioration in respect for fundamental freedoms with the use of restrictive laws to criminalise pro-democracy activists, journalists and critical voices.
In September 2022, the European Union (EU) issued a statement at the UN Human Rights Council where it stated that it remained “gravely concerned about the repressive National Security Law (NSL), the renewed use of the Sedition Law”. They added that “the legitimate exercise of human rights and fundamental freedoms, in particular freedom of peaceful assembly and association, freedom of expression including media freedom, supposed to remain protected until 2047, has been substantially eroded”.
A study published in October 2022 by the Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC), an influential panel that advises the US Congress on policy towards China, highlighted how the crackdown has transformed Hong Kong owing to the measures the authorities have taken to silence dissent including the political persecution of activists, the forced closure of the most influential independent media outlets and the largest civil society organisations.
Since August 2022, there have been ongoing prosecutions under the draconian National Security Law, including of minors, while members of a humanitarian fund to support protesters have been convicted. Individuals continue to be arrested, charged or convicted for sedition including for the publication of books, social media posts, fundraising and even playing a protest song. A pro-democracy activist and media magnate Jimmy Lai was sentenced on fraud charges while the authorities have continued its judicial persecution of human rights lawyer Chow Hang-Tung.
47 charged under draconian security law facing unfair trial
As previously documented, 47 individuals were charged with "conspiracy to subversion" in February 2021 under the draconian National Security Law for organising an unofficial primary election in 2020. They include democratically elected lawmakers, councillors, academics and pro-democracy advocates and face a maximum sentence of life in prison.
On 22nd August 2022, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported that following the lifting of a media ban it became public that the prosecution had named five of the defendants as “major organisers,” which suggests possible harsh sentences, up to life in prison.The five named as major organisers are Benny Tai, a legal scholar; Au Nok-hin, a former legislator; Chiu Ka-yin and Chung Kam-lun, former district council members; and Gordon Ng Ching-hang, an activist.
HRW also stated that “many aspects of the detention and trial proceedings have violated international due process standards.” On 16th August, Justice Secretary Paul Lam ordered a non-jury trial in the case, a departure from the tradition of trial by jury for criminal cases heard by the Hong Kong Court of First Instance. Denial of a jury trial is among several security law provisions that deprive defendants of their fair trial rights. The security law also denies bail to suspects unless the judge is convinced they will not commit national security offences. Many of the 47 defendants have been detained since police charged them.
News outlets reported after the ban was lifted that 29 defendants had indicated their intention to plead guilty to charges of “conspiracy to commit subversion.” In Hong Kong, a guilty plea generally results in a one-third sentence reduction. Another guilty plea was reported in November 2022.
Minors sentenced under national security law
Five youths advocating independence from Chinese rule were sentenced on 9th October for “conspiring to incite subversion.” Four of them became the first minors to be sentenced under the draconian national security law.
The five - Yuen Ka-him, 17, Wan Chung-wai, 16, Leung Yung-wan, 17, Tseung Chau Ching-yu, 17, and Kwok Man-hei, 19 - were members of the group Returning Valiant which had called for an “armed uprising”. They had earlier pleaded guilty to the charge. They were sentenced to time in a training centre, an alternative to imprisonment for those aged below 21, where the period of detention ranges from six months to three years. The youngest was aged just 15 at the time of arrest.
The UN were alarmed by the sentencing and reminded the authorities of their obligations under international human rights law, in particular the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The Convention on the Rights of the Child in Article 37 states that “the arrest, detention or imprisonment of a child shall be in conformity with the law and shall be used only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time”.
The UN Human Rights Office and a number of UN human rights mechanisms have repeatedly expressed concerns over the negative impact of the National Security Law on fundamental rights and freedoms in Hong Kong.
Members of activist group Student Politicism jailed under national security law
Hong Kong's National Security Police arrested Student activist group Student Politicism convenor Wong Yat-chin and others, and raided the organization's warehouse. This is a student group that set up street booths and help prisoners. pic.twitter.com/NK66OwsyDW— Fight For Freedom. Stand With Hong Kong. 重光團隊 (@Stand_with_HK) September 21, 2021
Four members of the defunct pro-democracy student-activist group Student Politicism were sentenced to up to three years in jail or detention on 22nd October 2022 under the draconian national security law.
The activists had pleaded guilty in court in July 2022 on a joint count of conspiracy to incite subversion in acts between October 2020 and June 2021. Group founder Wong Yat Chin was jailed for 36 months and group secretary Chan Chi-sum was jailed for 34 months, while two spokeswomen for the group were also sentenced. Jessica Chu Wai-ying, 19, received a 30-month prison sentence, while Alice Wong Yuen-lam, 20, was ordered to serve up to three years at a vocational development training centre.
Student Politicism was founded in May 2020 and advocated for pressing Hong Kong's “struggle” against the authorities. The group used street booths as a key method to garner support.
Conviction of trustees and secretary from humanitarian fund
🇭🇰#HongKong: CIVICUS & @adn_asia find the conviction of 6 pro-democracy figures affiliated with the now-defunct 612 Fund as another blow to freedom of association and highlights the regression of civic and democratic space in the region. See our statement: https://t.co/zo4eE7d0EJ pic.twitter.com/QRbBm0IzxH— CIVICUS (@CIVICUSalliance) December 2, 2022
Six pro-democracy figures affiliated with the-now defunct 612 Humanitarian Relief Support Fund (the 612 Fund) were convicted on 25th November for failing to register the fund.
The 612 Fund was founded in June 2019 to provide legal, humanitarian and financial support to protesters during the 2019 protests against the restrictive Extradition Law Amendment Bill that was later retracted. The fund’s name “612” stems from the date 12 June 2019, when the police cracked down on largely peaceful protesters who demonstrated against the extradition bill.
In 2021, as part of the systematic crackdown on protesters and civil society groups, the police ordered the 612 Fund to submit information about its donors and beneficiaries, leading to the forced closure of the fund and a case filed against them. All six defendants: Cardinal Joseph Zen, barrister Margaret Ng, ex-lawmaker Cyd Ho, scholar Hui Po-keung and singer-activist Denise Ho - trustees of the 612 Fund - and the fund’s secretary Sze Ching-wee pleaded not guilty. However, the Magistrates’ Court found all defendants guilty of failing to apply for registration or exemption from registration within a specified time under Article 5A and 5C of the Cap 151 Societies Ordinance. They were fined between HKD 2,500 – 4,000 each (approximately USD 321 - 513).
In July 2022, the UN Human Rights Committee raised concerns over the excessive number of civil society organisations which have relocated or ceased to operate since the enactment of the National Security Law and called for a review of the Societies Ordinance and other relevant legislation with a view to removing the procedural and substantive obstacles to register and run a society.
Court convicts speech therapists over ‘seditious’ children’s books
Today, a #HongKong court convicted 5 for "sedition."— Maya Wang 王松蓮 (@wang_maya) September 7, 2022
Their crime? Writing children's books. About a flock of sheep 🐑 https://t.co/WlyN991w9Q
So...why are these sheep "seditious"? pic.twitter.com/O5n5JjKt7W
Two men and three women, who were all members of the General Union of Hong Kong Speech Therapists, were convicted of sedition on 7th September 2022 for publishing a series of children’s books about Hong Kong’s 2019 pro-democracy mass protests and other issues. The government revoked the union’s registration in October 2021, alleging that it was used for “unlawful purpose”.
All five were arrested in July 2021, as previously documented. In books such as ‘The Guardians of Sheep Village’, ‘The 12 Heroes of Sheep Village’ and ‘The Garbage Collectors of Sheep Village’, Hong Kong residents were depicted as sheep and mainland Chinese authorities as wolves. National security police said the illustrated books – which were aimed at children between four and seven years old – had a “seditious intent” and “incited violence”.
Amnesty International’s China campaigner Gwen Lee said: “In today’s Hong Kong, you can go to jail for publishing children’s books with drawings of wolves and sheep. These ‘sedition’ convictions are an absurd example of the disintegration of human rights in the city.”
On 11th September 2022, the courts sentenced the five speech therapists to 19 months in prison.
Increasing use of sedition law to criminalise dissent
Since 2020, the Hong Kong government has been using colonial-era sedition charges – alongside the repressive National Security Law which was enacted in June of that year – to stamp out dissent. In July 2022, the United Nations Human Rights Committee expressed concern about the Hong Kong government’s use of colonial-era sedition charges to target people for exercising their right to freedom of expression. The following are some recent cases:
On 20th September 2022, an individual who played a harmonica to a crowd outside the British Consulate during Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral was arrested for sedition. According to reports, the man played the British national anthem and Glory to Hong Kong, a popular song during huge pro-democracy protests in 2019. The mourners outside the Consulate applauded the performance and shone their phone torches, with many later shouting the protest chant “Hongkongers add oil” and singing Glory to Hong Kong. Police said a 43-year-old man surnamed Pang was arrested outside the consulate for “seditious acts”.
On 26th October 2022, a civil servant was jailed for six months after he pleaded guilty to making “seditious” online posts that advocated for an “armed resistance” and “destruction” of the Chinese Communist Party.
Police arrested Joseph John Wong Kin Chung, a Portuguese national, on 1st November, allegedly for committing sedition through social media posts. He was detained over his allegedly offensive statements and pictures posted on the website of the Hong Kong Independence Party, as well as the group’s accounts on four social media platforms, from 9th October to 1st November. He was denied bail on 3rd November 2022.
On 15th November 2022, an autistic man was convicted under the sedition law and sentenced to 12 months in prison for publishing posts on two telegram groups on online forum LIHKG where he described the central and Hong Kong governments as “bandits,” and encouraged people to overturn the “tyranny” of the Communist Party of China.
On 22nd November 2022, national security police arrested a 42-year-old man on suspicion of sedition over social media posts, including one in which he thanked South Korea for “recognising Hong Kong’s national anthem”. The message was posted alongside a video of a popular protest song being played instead of the Chinese national anthem at South Korea’s Rugby Sevens.
Radio DJ sentenced for criticism and support of activists
#BREAKING: Hong Kong online radio host Edmund Wan, better known by nickname "Giggs", was jailed for 2 years and 8 months for sedition and money laundering.— Holmes Chan (@holmeschan_) October 7, 2022
Wan on his show called for overthrowing Beijing, violence against officials and Hong Kong independence, the judge said.🧵 pic.twitter.com/KFB8xKheUZ
On 7th October, Edmund Wan, or “Giggs”, an online radio DJ and political commentator, was sentenced to two years and eight months on charges of seditious intention and money laundering.
According to Amnesty International, prior to his arrest, Wan was the host of four shows on an independent online radio station in Hong Kong. He was often critical of the Hong Kong and Chinese central authorities.
In February 2020, he started a fundraiser for sponsoring the education of a group of Hong Kong youths who had fled to Taiwan as the Hong Kong government arrested tens of thousands of young people who took part in the city’s 2019 mass protests.
On 21st November 2020, Wan was arrested under the Hong Kong National Security Law. On 8th February 2021, Wan was instead officially charged with four counts of “acts with a seditious intention” under colonial era sedition laws. He was then charged on 10th May 2021 with an additional five counts of money-laundering and one count of “conspiring to commit an act with a seditious intention”. The “seditious intention” charges concerned his criticism of the Hong Kong Chief Executive and the Chinese Communist Party on his online radio shows and posts.
Trial against journalists begin
The trial against the defunct online news outlet Stand News and its former editor-in-chief Chung Pui-kuen and former acting chief editor Patrick Lam began at Wan Chai District Court on 31 October. The three defendants stand accused of conspiring to publish “seditious publications.” Chung and Lam entered their not guilty pleas.
As previously documented, non-profit online news outlet Stand News - one of the most prominent independent pro-democracy media in Hong Kong ceased operations in December 2021 after its newsroom was raided by more than 200 national security police officers. Seven people connected to the publication – including Chung and Lam – were arrested on suspicion of conspiring to publish seditious publications. Chung and Lam have been remanded in custody since their arrests.
Pro-democracy activist and media magnate sentenced on fraud charges
Media magnate, Jimmy Lai, the founder of the pro-democracy and now defunct Hong Kong tabloid Apple Daily, was sentenced to five years and nine months in jail on 10 December 2022, after being convicted for fraud. Lai was fined two million Hong Kong dollars (USD 275,292).
Lai recently completed a 20-month term in prison for his part in protests. He is now awaiting another trial on national security charges. If convicted, he could face life imprisonment.
Lai was arrested in 2019 as part of a crackdown against Hong Kong's pro-democracy movement under the National Security Law imposed by Beijing. Apple Daily was forced to close down in 2021 after the arrests of its top executives and journalists. Hong Kong's press freedom has deteriorated steadily in the last two decades, its global ranking in press freedom dropping from 18th position in 2002 to 148th position in 2022, according to Reporters Without Borders. It fell 50 places just in the last year.
The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) condemned the ongoing legal harassment of Jimmy Lai and said: “The Hong Kong authorities must immediately end the protracted legal persecution of Jimmy and withdraw all charges against him. As Lai’s unjust trial under the draconian national security law commences, the IFJ calls on governments, civil society, and media organisations worldwide to condemn the destruction of independent media in Hong Kong and to support journalists and media workers fleeing from an increasingly perilous working environment.”
Ongoing judicial persecution of human rights lawyer
Human rights lawyer Chow Hang Tung, the former vice-chairperson of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China (HKA), is facing two ongoing charges related to her activism.
Chow was charged in September 2021 with "not complying with the requirement to provide information" under Article 43 of Hong Kong's National Security Law, after the police accused the HKA of being backed by "foreign agents" and demanded that it provide information for the police investigation.
The Alliance has been accused of acting as an agent for an unnamed “Organisation 4,” with the prosecution saying the group had received HK$20,000 (USD 25,739) from the unidentified entity. On 6th December 2022, Chow said that the funds from “Organisation 4,” were from the Japan branch of the Federation for a Democratic China and were collected as part of a crowd-funding campaign for the expansion of the June 4th Museum, commemorating the Tiananmen massacre.
Chow is also facing another charge of "inciting subversion of state power", together with Lee Cheuk-yan and Albert Ho, the chair and vice-chair of the HKA. The indictment states that they are suspected of inciting others to subvert the Chinese regime in Hong Kong between 1st July 2020 and 8th September 2021.
In August 2022, Chow succeeded in persuading a Court of First Instance (CFI) Judge that a magistrate had been wrong in forbidding newspaper reporting of committal proceedings around her subversion case, the object of which was to secure her appearance for trial in the CFI on offences under the national security law.
On 9th September 2022, the national security case against the former leader of the group behind Hong Kong’s Tiananmen vigils was transferred to the city’s Court of First Instance after a magistrate ruled that the prosecution had sufficient evidence for a case against her.
In a trial held on 26th October at the West Kowloon Magistrates’ Court against her and two other former standing committee members of the Hong Kong Alliance, Principal Magistrate Peter Law barred Chow Hang-tung from using the phrase “Tiananmen massacre” during the national security trial, with a magistrate instead urging her to use “proper terminology.”
On 5th December it was reported that the national security case against Chow would be tried without a jury. According to Chow’s post, the justice secretary listed three reasons for a non-jury trial: “involvement of foreign factors in the case, protection of personal safety of jurors and their family members, and/or if the trial is to be conducted with a jury, there is a real risk that the due administration of justice might be impaired.”
Nearly three thousand prosecuted for protests
According to the Hong Kong Free Press, on 27th October 2022, almost 3,000 people including 517 minors have so far been prosecuted for offences linked to the 2019 anti-extradition bill protests, latest Hong Kong government figures show.
Hong Kong Watch reported that in September 2022, the court jailed nine protesters – including a 24-year-old pregnant woman – for three years and six months each after they were convicted of ‘rioting’ outside the government headquarters at Admiralty in 2019. In October 2022, nine more individuals were arrested by the National Security Department and charged for their involvement in 2019 protests.
Police had apprehended a total of 10,279 people in connection with the months-long pro-democracy unrest as of 31st August 2022, the Security Bureau told the Legislative Council on Wednesday. Among the arrestees, 1,754 were aged under 18.
As of the end of August 2022, the authorities had prosecuted 2,893 of them, including 517 aged under 18. The bureau said 2,044 defendants had completed their judicial proceedings, with 80 per cent of them – or 1,631 individuals – “bearing legal consequences,” including prison sentences, community service orders, probation and binding-over orders.
Local courts imposed legal measures on 353 defendants who were minors at the time of their arrest, with the heaviest punishment being imprisonment of 5.5 years.