Hundreds of individuals in Hong Kong are dealing with court docket motion for participating 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 frequent residents who determined to hitch the months-long demonstrations.
Greater than 10,000 individuals have been arrested previously three years for his or her alleged involvement within the protests, authorities criticism and pro-democracy political actions, in response to Hong Kong authorities information. Of these dealing with costs, the overwhelming majority are individuals beneath the age of 30, though in addition they embody a number 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 individuals weren’t unfamiliar with the danger of arrest, however infractions that had been as soon as thought-about minor offences are actually ending up in jail time.
Most of the metropolis’s pro-democracy politicians have been arrested underneath 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 regulation, Hong Kong’s justice system was as soon as considered one of the vital unbiased and sturdy in Asia, however has been thrust into the highlight because the nationwide safety regulation was put in place.
Overseas judges have left the 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 felony justice” and “lawfare” ways have discovered their approach 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 folks 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 go away 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 underneath approach and extra are as a consequence of begin in 2023, in response to information compiled by the Hong Kong Democracy Council (HKDC), a US-based advocacy group.
Whereas there are other ways to depend the information, the advocacy group estimates that Hong Kong is now house to 432 “political prisoners” – individuals arrested for his or her political views or actions – who’ve accomplished sentences, with 582 individuals 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 costs associated to the protests embody taking part in an illegal meeting and rioting, whereas these accused of being “leaders” face costs like incitement and organising an illegal meeting. Greater than three-quarters of Hong Kong’s “political prisoners” are younger individuals beneath the age of 30, in response to the HKDC. Greater than half are beneath 25.
Beijing imposed the nationwide safety regulation in 2020.
The fallout has been felt among the many political opposition, civil society leaders, journalists, and “virtually all non-violent pro-democracy actions in Hong Kong”, in response to Eric Lai, a Hong Kong regulation fellow on the Georgetown Heart for Asian Legislation.
Between July 2020 and June 2022, 203 individuals had been arrested underneath the regulation and 123 charged, in response to information compiled by Lai. Many defendants face further costs underneath Hong Kong’s atypical felony statutes.
Whereas the safety regulation particularly refers to crimes of subversion, sedition, “terrorism” and “collusion with international forces”, greater than 50 individuals have been arrested for “seditious” or “secessionist” speech underneath not too long ago revived sedition legal guidelines that date from the British colonial period.
To date solely 10 individuals have been convicted underneath 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 individuals like Jimmy Lai, the previous writer of Apple Every day and longtime critic of the Communist Social gathering, 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 Help 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 retailers have folded after workers had been both charged or feared being charged underneath 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 frequent 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 government, mentioned Nee, which suggests the justices can simply be eliminated.
Not like different felony instances, there is no such thing as a jury and defendants are virtually solely denied bail whereas authorized proceedings proceed – typically for months.
Defendants in these instances are tasked with proving they won’t “proceed to hazard nationwide safety” along with assembly atypical 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 publish bail.
Bail hearings themselves have turn into a virtually not possible job as, underneath the brand new regulation, defendants have misplaced the presumption of innocence – a basic proper within the frequent regulation system.
Responsible till confirmed harmless
Circumstances heard within the atypical 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 commonly 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 shifting by means of the atypical felony justice system have misplaced the presumption of innocence.
Typical instances concern costs like rioting, though many defendants weren’t caught within the act however as an alternative close by the scene or carrying tools 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 mentioned they felt that in lots of instances protesters had misplaced the presumption of innocence as judges would problem contradictory verdicts relying on the case.
“In a system the place the identical info can result in completely different outcomes earlier than completely different judges, when judges constantly disregard defence testimony and select to depend on police testimony even when unbelievable – these aren’t honest trials, that’s not the rule of regulation,” the lawyer mentioned.
Sluggish wheels of justice
Prison procedures have additionally taken longer, partly as a consequence of COVID-19, mentioned Samuel Bickett, a lawyer and Hong Kong regulation fellow on the Georgetown College Legislation 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 typical time from arrest to sentencing by means of mid-2021 is 380 days, that’s terribly lengthy. I imply we’re not speaking a couple of homicide case right here. That is greater than a 12 months to get by means of an illegal meeting case or principally quite simple instances,” Bickett informed Al Jazeera primarily based on information he’s compiling for an upcoming Georgetown Legislation report.
Bickett’s felony case took a 12 months and a half from begin to end, he mentioned.
Bail has additionally turn into harder to safe even for these charged for offences that don’t contain the safety regulation, and can also include onerous situations comparable to curfews, or guidelines associated to high school for younger defendants.
Longer and harsher sentencing
Sentencing has additionally turn into harsher no matter age or previous felony report, mentioned Steven Vines, a veteran Hong Kong journalist who left the town in 2021. Public order instances that after might need resulted in fines or neighborhood service now appeal to jail time.
HKDC information discovered that of practically 3,000 individuals prosecuted, 67 % had been convicted, receiving a mean jail sentence of 1.6 years. Sentences for suspected protest “leaders” and folks charged underneath the nationwide safety regulation are even longer, and lots of face a number of costs.
“Individuals with no felony convictions by any means are being given custodial sentences for issues like illegal meeting, which previously would’ve incurred a advantageous, nothing extra. People who find themselves being convicted of extra critical offences are getting sentences that are akin to armed robbers with a felony report,” Vines informed Al Jazeera.
Georgetown’s Lai, nonetheless, says this isn’t solely surprising.
Hong Kong has lengthy used public order legal guidelines in opposition to 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 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 vital 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 through the protests, plans to enact an area model of Beijing’s safety regulation. Hong Kong can also quickly see further legal guidelines governing on-line information and web posts, just 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.