Hundreds of individuals in Hong Kong are going through court docket motion for collaborating in 2019’s mass protests, which grew out of opposition to a mainland extradition invoice into wider requires democracy.
Whereas some are well-known names from the town’s political opposition, many others are widespread residents who determined to hitch the months-long demonstrations.
Greater than 10,000 folks have been arrested prior to now three years for his or her alleged involvement within the protests, authorities criticism and pro-democracy political actions, in response to Hong Kong authorities data. Of these going through expenses, the overwhelming majority are folks beneath the age of 30, though additionally they embody a few of the metropolis’s veteran opposition leaders.
On Friday, two youngsters had been sentenced to 5 and a half years in jail every for rioting, after being cleared of an earlier cost of manslaughter over the dying of a 70-year-old man who was hit within the head by a brick thrown in a confrontation between rival teams of protesters.
With the territory’s vibrant custom of civil disobedience, Hong Kong folks weren’t unfamiliar with the chance of arrest, however infractions that had been as soon as thought of minor offences are actually ending up in jail time.
Most of the metropolis’s pro-democracy politicians have been arrested beneath nationwide safety laws that was imposed by Beijing in 2020, and have been languishing in jail for months in pre-trial detention.
Based mostly on British widespread regulation, Hong Kong’s justice system was as soon as considered some of the unbiased and sturdy in Asia, however has been thrust into the highlight for the reason that nationwide safety regulation was put in place.
Foreign judges have left the city, in addition to rank and file legal professionals, whereas US lawmakers might quickly sanction Hong Kong prosecutors for offences like “arbitrary detention of people for exercising universally recognised human rights”.
Chinese language “mainland-style felony justice” and “lawfare” ways have discovered their manner into Hong Kong, mentioned William Nee, analysis and advocacy coordinator at Chinese language Human Rights Defenders.
“The amount of instances is a part of it, and a part of it’s the prolonged authorized course of that individuals face – and we’re solely two years into it,” he informed Al Jazeera. “We predict it may go on for a lot of, a few years the place persons are unable to journey, unable to depart Hong Kong, unable to talk to the media, and unable to take part in public life,” he mentioned.
Who’re on trial and why
Greater than 1,000 trials are beneath manner and extra are resulting from begin in 2023, in response to knowledge compiled by the Hong Kong Democracy Council (HKDC), a US-based advocacy group.
Whereas there are alternative ways to depend the info, the advocacy group estimates that Hong Kong is now house to 432 “political prisoners” – folks arrested for his or her political opinions or actions – who’ve accomplished sentences, with 582 folks nonetheless in custody or awaiting trial.
Most of the arrests over the previous three years are linked to the 2019 protests, though not all.
Frequent expenses associated to the protests embody collaborating in an unlawful assembly and rioting, whereas these accused of being “leaders” face expenses like incitement and organising an illegal meeting. Greater than three-quarters of Hong Kong’s “political prisoners” are younger folks beneath the age of 30, in response to the HKDC. Greater than half are beneath 25.
Beijing imposed the national security law in 2020.
The fallout has been felt among the many political opposition, civil society leaders, journalists, and “nearly all non-violent pro-democracy actions in Hong Kong”, in response to Eric Lai, a Hong Kong regulation fellow on the Georgetown Middle for Asian Regulation.
Between July 2020 and June 2022, 203 folks had been arrested beneath the regulation and 123 charged, in response to knowledge compiled by Lai. Many defendants face extra expenses beneath Hong Kong’s bizarre felony statutes.
Whereas the safety regulation particularly refers to crimes of subversion, sedition, “terrorism” and “collusion with overseas forces”, greater than 50 folks have been arrested for “seditious” or “secessionist” speech beneath lately revived sedition legal guidelines that date from the British colonial era.
Up to now solely 10 folks have been convicted beneath the brand new regulation, however many instances have been delayed by Hong Kong’s strict COVID-19 insurance policies, in response to Lai.
Nationwide safety police have focused folks like Jimmy Lai, the previous writer of Apple Each day and longtime critic of the Communist Get together, in addition to 47 activists and opposition leaders charged and arrested for organising an unofficial primary election for the pro-democracy camp in 2019.
They’ve additionally arrested leaders of the protest umbrella group Hong Kong Alliance in Assist of Patriotic Democratic Actions in China for failing to submit proof to police, whereas scholar teams have been charged with “terrorism”.
Sedition legal guidelines have shut down a lot of Hong Kong’s unbiased press as information shops have folded after employees had been both charged or feared being charged beneath the sedition regulation.
A brand new class of criminals
The nationwide safety regulation has created a brand new felony process in Hong Kong that strays from its widespread regulation custom.
Nationwide safety defendants are heard earlier than a panel of three judges handpicked for phrases of 1 12 months by the town’s chief govt, mentioned Nee, which suggests the justices can simply be eliminated.
Not like different felony instances, there isn’t a jury and defendants are nearly completely denied bail whereas authorized proceedings proceed – usually for months.
Defendants in these instances are tasked with proving they won’t “proceed to hazard nationwide safety” along with assembly bizarre bail situations, in response to a Hong Kong defence lawyer and rule of regulation monitor who spoke on situation of anonymity.
Among the most high-profile instances embody the 47 individuals who had been picked up over the first and have already spent greater than a 12 months in detention after the prosecutors appealed their preliminary proper to submit bail.
Bail hearings themselves have turn out to be a nearly impossible task as, beneath the brand new regulation, defendants have misplaced the presumption of innocence – a basic proper within the widespread regulation system.
Responsible till confirmed harmless
Instances heard within the bizarre felony system, which generally concern rank and file protesters, have additionally modified dramatically over the previous three years.
The primary main change has been the place they’re heard.
The place instances of civil disobedience had been as soon as referred to the Justice of the Peace’s court docket – the bottom rung of the felony justice system – they’re now usually despatched as much as the district court docket or Excessive Court docket, in response to the defence lawyer. Magistrates are restricted to two-year sentences, however the district and Excessive Court docket can impose phrases of so long as seven years and life imprisonment, respectively.
The defence lawyer mentioned in lots of instances, even rank and file protesters transferring via the bizarre felony justice system have misplaced the presumption of innocence.
Typical instances concern expenses like rioting, though many defendants weren’t caught within the act however as a substitute close by the scene or carrying gear like goggles or masks. Each objects had been utilized by protesters and journalists to guard themselves from tear fuel and pepper spray, which turned an indicator of the protests within the late summer time of 2019 and was even fired at bystanders.
The lawyer mentioned they felt that in lots of instances protesters had misplaced the presumption of innocence as judges would situation contradictory verdicts relying on the case.
“In a system the place the identical info can result in totally different outcomes earlier than totally different judges, when judges constantly disregard defence testimony and select to depend on police testimony even when unbelievable – these should not truthful trials, that’s not the rule of regulation,” the lawyer mentioned.
Gradual wheels of justice
Legal procedures have additionally taken longer, partially resulting from COVID-19, mentioned Samuel Bickett, a lawyer and Hong Kong regulation fellow on the Georgetown College Regulation Centre who served 4 and a half months in jail for a 2019 altercation with an off-duty Hong Kong police officer.
Whereas Hong Kong regulation doesn’t assure the appropriate to a speedy trial, critics say the delays are disproportionate to the crime.
“The common time from arrest to sentencing via mid-2021 is 380 days, that’s terribly lengthy. I imply we’re not speaking a few homicide case right here. That is greater than a 12 months to get via an illegal meeting case or principally quite simple instances,” Bickett informed Al Jazeera based mostly on knowledge he’s compiling for an upcoming Georgetown Regulation report.
Bickett’s felony case took a 12 months and a half from begin to end, he mentioned.
Bail has additionally turn out to be tougher to safe even for these charged for offences that don’t contain the safety regulation, and may additionally include onerous situations similar to curfews, or guidelines associated to high school for younger defendants.
Longer and harsher sentencing
Sentencing has additionally turn out to be harsher no matter age or previous felony file, mentioned Steven Vines, a veteran Hong Kong journalist who left the town in 2021. Public order instances that when may need resulted in fines or neighborhood service now appeal to jail time.
HKDC knowledge discovered that of practically 3,000 folks prosecuted, 67 % had been convicted, receiving a mean jail sentence of 1.6 years. Sentences for suspected protest “leaders” and folks charged beneath the nationwide safety regulation are even longer, and plenty of face a number of expenses.
“Folks with no felony convictions in any way are being given custodial sentences for issues like illegal meeting, which prior to now would’ve incurred a fantastic, nothing extra. People who find themselves being convicted of extra severe offences are getting sentences that are akin to armed robbers with a felony file,” Vines informed Al Jazeera.
Georgetown’s Lai, nevertheless, says this isn’t completely surprising.
Hong Kong has lengthy used public order legal guidelines in opposition to protesters, even earlier than the 1997 handover to China.
However lately, Hong Kong’s courts have indicated that they might come down more durable on non-violent protesters amid prolonged instances surrounding the protest leaders of 2014’s Umbrella Movement. One other case across the similar indicated that rioting offences would even be met with harsher phrases.
Hong Kong’s authorities has mentioned the prosecutions and nationwide safety regulation are essential to revive order after 2019’s protracted protests introduced the territory to a standstill.
The town’s new chief govt John Lee, a former police officer who was safety chief throughout the protests, plans to enact a local version of Beijing’s safety regulation. Hong Kong may additionally quickly see extra legal guidelines governing on-line knowledge and web posts, just like laws passed by Singapore.
For now, prosecutions of 2019 protesters are anticipated to proceed over the following two years because of the prolonged backlog – the nationwide safety instances may take even longer because of the quantity of proof compiled by prosecutors and successive delays. Within the meantime, a lot of Hong Kong’s opposition and civil society will stay silenced, exiled or in jail.