Thursday, May 19

‘They can’t speak freely’: Hong Kong one year after national security law | Hong Kong

OROne year after Beijing imposed a National Security Law (NSL) on Hong Kong, the city has fundamentally and radically changed. Political opposition has been largely crushed, pro-democracy newspapers have been forced to shut down or self-censor, political and advocacy groups have disbanded. Thousands of residents have fled abroad.

At least 128 people have been arrested under the NSL or by its dedicated police department, including three minors, dozens of politicians and journalists. More than half have been charged with crimes against national security that carry up to life imprisonment and only 17 received bail.

But with the first case to go to trial last week, the law, which broadly prohibits acts of secession, subversion, foreign collusion and terrorism, remains unproven. Analysts say hasty arrests and slow prosecutions are a deliberate strategy designed to stoke fear, and that due process interventions jeopardize the right to a fair trial.

The Guardian has been tracking the use of NSL since its introduction. Based on police press releases, social media posts and news reports, it determined that at least 128 people have been arrested, some of them multiple times, by the police national security department (NSD). .

The Hong Kong police and the national security bureau gave different figures – 113 and 115 respectively – while the justice department said it “does not keep any records of statistical information.”

The bureau said 64 people had been charged, but the others remain under investigation. The low rate of charges so long after the arrest is deliberate, said Eric Lai, a Hong Kong law fellow at Georgetown University and a co-author of two recent reports from Georgetown Asian Law Center examining the NSL.

“It is entirely under their control if and when they will process the arrested person on police bail,” Lai said. “[Not doing so] it creates a silencing effect on society, an idea that everyone could be arbitrarily arrested, even without charge, so they cannot speak freely and participate in political society ”.

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Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a historian of modern China at the University of California, Irvine, and an author on Hong Kong, said authorities already had the ability to “arrest, detain and prosecute people for many actions that displeased them,” but that the NSL had added the fear of long sentences and provided greater potential to punish people for speaking out. “This has a powerful chilling effect,” he said.

Few people in Hong Kong are still willing to speak publicly in opposition to the government, and interviews with foreign media have been cited in at least one case (against Jimmy Lai) and two bail hearings (against the former legislator Claudia Mo).

High-profile activists like Jimmy Lai and Joshua Wong are among those awaiting national security trials. But there are others, such as Margaret Ng, Martin Lee, Lee Cheuk Yan, and Albert Ho, who have been charged or convicted under pre-existing laws covering unauthorized protests, anti-pandemic assembly bans, and the colonial-era sedition law.

Among the cases tracked by The Guardian, dozens of people arrested by the NSD, which has vastly expanded powers, were charged with fraud, money laundering, non-NSL sedition and other crimes unrelated to the new law, blurring the line. between customary law and customary law. National security.

An Amnesty International report released Wednesday said: “The authorities are exercising these investigative powers with virtually no control in cases potentially unrelated to national security.”

This ran the risk of normalizing the operation of the NSD outside of its purview (thereby granting some immunity to human rights law) and limiting what could be done to prevent “possible human rights violations during the investigation process”, Amnesty said.

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‘Two-track justice’: due process concerns

Members of the judiciary have expressed fear for the future of Hong Kong’s respected judicial system. At least two judges have left, citing the NSL.

The Georgetown report found significant concerns that the defendants’ due process rights were being restricted in NSL prosecutions.

The NSL’s first trial began on June 23, 51 weeks after the defendant, Tong Ying-kit, was arrested on the first day of the law, after he allegedly collided with his motorcycle against a group of police officers during the protests.

Tong’s request for a jury trial was rejected by the high court, for the first time in its 176-year history, after the Hong Kong attorney general argued that the safety of jurors could be at risk.

Lai said his team was “deeply concerned about due process,” citing the jury’s decision, the alleged denial of bail to national security defendants, including dozens of people arrested for holding a peaceful primary before the elections, and questions about whether some defendants were under pressure to fire their chosen lawyer and hire pro-Beijing lawyers.

“We can see that the government, the prosecution, even the judge is trying to support a two-track justice system in Hong Kong,” he said. “One that follows ordinary practices and the other that creates a new norm.”

The Georgetown report said it was too early to say definitively, but “taken together, the government’s measures … put the fundamental right to a fair trial at risk.”

Tong is on trial for incitement to secession and terrorism, as well as dangerous driving, but his case also has an element of freedom of expression. Prosecutors said a flag affixed to his motorcycle reading “Liberate Hong Kong, Revolution of Our Time” was a separatist war cry from people seeking “regime change.”

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According to an analysis of Georgetown Center and Guardian data, around 30 of the NSL arrests appeared to be related to secessionist or secessionist speeches or possession of materials. Most did not involve other alleged crimes. Most of the 53 people arrested during the pan-Democratic primaries had no other charges against them.

In the last year, the political opposition has practically disappeared. Pan-Democratic lawmakers have resigned or been disqualified; dozens of them have been arrested. The activists have been jailed, abandoned or fled abroad along with countless thousands of other residents. Political parties and advocacy groups have been disbanded, church charities closed, the academy has collapsed. The city’s loudest pro-democracy newspaper, Apple Daily, has been forced to shut down and other outlets have been intimidated or gagged. There have been fundamental changes in the elections.

Lai and his co-authors said there was still a chance for the government to “reduce” its use of the NSL, and argued that this was in its interest if it wanted to remain an international financial center and a model city that respects humans. rights and rule of law.

It may be too late. In a report from last week, Human Rights Watch accused the Hong Kong government for having “systematically dismantled human rights” with the NSL.

“The people of Hong Kong are watching the Chinese government take swift action to destroy their democratic society,” said Maya Wang, China senior researcher at Human Rights Watch. “They used to talk about politics, run for public office and criticize the government, but that is not only prohibited now, it is punishable by up to life imprisonment.”

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