1000’s 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 town’s political opposition, many others are frequent residents who determined to affix the months-long demonstrations.
Greater than 10,000 folks have been arrested up to now three years for his or her alleged involvement within the protests, authorities criticism and pro-democracy political actions, in line with Hong Kong authorities knowledge. Of these going through fees, 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 demise 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 at the moment are ending up in jail time.
Lots 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 frequent legislation, Hong Kong’s justice system was as soon as thought to be one of the crucial impartial and strong in Asia, however has been thrust into the highlight because the nationwide safety legislation was put in place.
International judges have left town, 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 legal justice” and “lawfare” ways have discovered their means into Hong Kong, stated 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 might go on for a lot of, a few years the place individuals are unable to journey, unable to depart Hong Kong, unable to talk to the media, and unable to take part in public life,” he stated.
Who’re on trial and why
Greater than 1,000 trials are beneath means and extra are resulting from begin in 2023, in line with knowledge compiled by the Hong Kong Democracy Council (HKDC), a US-based advocacy group.
Whereas there are other ways to rely the info, the advocacy group estimates that Hong Kong is now dwelling to 432 “political prisoners” – folks arrested for his or her political views or actions – who’ve accomplished sentences, with 582 folks nonetheless in custody or awaiting trial.
Lots of the arrests over the previous three years are linked to the 2019 protests, though not all.
Widespread fees associated to the protests embody collaborating in an illegal meeting and rioting, whereas these accused of being “leaders” face fees 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 line with the HKDC. Greater than half are beneath 25.
Beijing imposed the nationwide safety legislation 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 line with Eric Lai, a Hong Kong legislation fellow on the Georgetown Heart for Asian Regulation.
Between July 2020 and June 2022, 203 folks had been arrested beneath the legislation and 123 charged, in line with knowledge compiled by Lai. Many defendants face further fees beneath Hong Kong’s bizarre legal statutes.
Whereas the safety legislation 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 period.
Up to now solely 10 folks have been convicted beneath the brand new legislation, however many instances have been delayed by Hong Kong’s strict COVID-19 insurance policies, in line with Lai.
Nationwide safety police have focused folks like Jimmy Lai, the previous writer of Apple Every day and longtime critic of the Communist Occasion, in addition to 47 activists and opposition leaders charged and arrested for organising an unofficial main 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 impartial press as information retailers have folded after workers had been both charged or feared being charged beneath the sedition legislation.
A brand new class of criminals
The nationwide safety legislation has created a brand new legal process in Hong Kong that strays from its frequent legislation custom.
Nationwide safety defendants are heard earlier than a panel of three judges handpicked for phrases of 1 yr by town’s chief government, stated Nee, which suggests the justices can simply be eliminated.
Not like different legal instances, there isn’t a jury and defendants are nearly solely 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 circumstances, in line with a Hong Kong defence lawyer and rule of legislation 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 yr in detention after the prosecutors appealed their preliminary proper to submit bail.
Bail hearings themselves have develop into an almost inconceivable process as, beneath the brand new legislation, defendants have misplaced the presumption of innocence – a elementary proper within the frequent legislation system.
Responsible till confirmed harmless
Instances heard within the bizarre legal 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 legal justice system – they’re now frequently despatched as much as the district court docket or Excessive Court docket, in line with 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 stated in lots of instances, even rank and file protesters shifting via the bizarre legal justice system have misplaced the presumption of innocence.
Typical instances concern fees 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 gadgets had been utilized by protesters and journalists to guard themselves from tear gasoline and pepper spray, which turned an indicator of the protests within the late summer season of 2019 and was even fired at bystanders.
The lawyer stated they felt that in lots of instances protesters had misplaced the presumption of innocence as judges would subject contradictory verdicts relying on the case.
“In a system the place the identical details 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 usually are not honest trials, that’s not the rule of legislation,” the lawyer stated.
Sluggish wheels of justice
Felony procedures have additionally taken longer, partly resulting from COVID-19, stated Samuel Bickett, a lawyer and Hong Kong legislation 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 legislation doesn’t assure the proper 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 yr to get via an illegal meeting case or principally quite simple instances,” Bickett informed Al Jazeera primarily based on knowledge he’s compiling for an upcoming Georgetown Regulation report.
Bickett’s legal case took a yr and a half from begin to end, he stated.
Bail has additionally develop into tougher to safe even for these charged for offences that don’t contain the safety legislation, and can also include onerous circumstances reminiscent of curfews, or guidelines associated to highschool for younger defendants.
Longer and harsher sentencing
Sentencing has additionally develop into harsher no matter age or previous legal file, stated Steven Vines, a veteran Hong Kong journalist who left 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 almost 3,000 folks prosecuted, 67 % had been convicted, receiving a median jail sentence of 1.6 years. Sentences for suspected protest “leaders” and folks charged beneath the nationwide safety legislation are even longer, and plenty of face a number of fees.
“Individuals with no legal convictions in any way are being given custodial sentences for issues like illegal meeting, which up to now would’ve incurred a high-quality, nothing extra. People who find themselves being convicted of extra critical offences are getting sentences that are akin to armed robbers with a legal file,” Vines informed Al Jazeera.
Georgetown’s Lai, nonetheless, says this isn’t totally surprising.
Hong Kong has lengthy used public order legal guidelines towards protesters, even earlier than the 1997 handover to China.
However in recent times, Hong Kong’s courts have indicated that they might come down tougher on non-violent protesters amid prolonged instances surrounding the protest leaders of 2014’s Umbrella Motion. One other case across the identical indicated that rioting offences would even be met with harsher phrases.
Hong Kong’s authorities has stated the prosecutions and nationwide safety legislation are obligatory to revive order after 2019’s protracted protests introduced the territory to a standstill.
Town’s new chief government John Lee, a former police officer who was safety chief throughout the protests, plans to enact a neighborhood model of Beijing’s safety legislation. Hong Kong can also quickly see further legal guidelines governing on-line knowledge and web posts, much like legal guidelines handed by Singapore.
For now, prosecutions of 2019 protesters are anticipated to proceed over the following two years as a result of prolonged backlog – the nationwide safety instances might take even longer as a result of 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.