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 the town’s political opposition, many others are widespread residents who determined to affix 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 knowledge. Of these going through prices, the overwhelming majority are individuals beneath the age of 30, though in addition they embrace 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 loss of life 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 chance of arrest, however infractions that had been as soon as thought of minor offences are actually 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.
Primarily based on British widespread legislation, Hong Kong’s justice system was as soon as considered some of the unbiased and strong in Asia, however has been thrust into the highlight for the reason that nationwide safety legislation was put in place.
International judges have left the town, in addition to rank and file attorneys, whereas US lawmakers could quickly sanction Hong Kong prosecutors for offences like “arbitrary detention of people for exercising universally recognised human rights”.
Chinese language “mainland-style prison justice” and “lawfare” ways have discovered their method into Hong Kong, mentioned William Nee, analysis and advocacy coordinator at Chinese language Human Rights Defenders.
“The quantity of circumstances 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 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 mentioned.
Who’re on trial and why
Greater than 1,000 trials are beneath method and extra are because of 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 rely the info, 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.
Lots of the arrests over the previous three years are linked to the 2019 protests, though not all.
Widespread prices associated to the protests embrace collaborating in an illegal meeting and rioting, whereas these accused of being “leaders” face prices 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 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 response to Eric Lai, a Hong Kong legislation fellow on the Georgetown Middle for Asian Regulation.
Between July 2020 and June 2022, 203 individuals had been arrested beneath the legislation and 123 charged, in response to knowledge compiled by Lai. Many defendants face further prices beneath Hong Kong’s bizarre prison statutes.
Whereas the safety legislation particularly refers to crimes of subversion, sedition, “terrorism” and “collusion with overseas forces”, greater than 50 individuals have been arrested for “seditious” or “secessionist” speech beneath lately revived sedition legal guidelines that date from the British colonial period.
Thus far solely 10 individuals have been convicted beneath the brand new legislation, however many circumstances 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 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 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 shops 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 prison process in Hong Kong that strays from its widespread legislation 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 implies the justices can simply be eliminated.
In contrast to different prison circumstances, there is no such thing as a jury and defendants are nearly completely denied bail whereas authorized proceedings proceed – usually for months.
Defendants in these circumstances are tasked with proving they won’t “proceed to hazard nationwide safety” along with assembly bizarre bail circumstances, in response to a Hong Kong defence lawyer and rule of legislation monitor who spoke on situation of anonymity.
A number of the most high-profile circumstances embrace 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 develop into a practically not possible process as, beneath the brand new legislation, defendants have misplaced the presumption of innocence – a basic proper within the widespread legislation system.
Responsible till confirmed harmless
Instances heard within the bizarre prison 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 circumstances of civil disobedience had been as soon as referred to the Justice of the Peace’s court docket – the bottom rung of the prison justice system – they’re now repeatedly despatched as much as the district court docket or Excessive Courtroom, in response to the defence lawyer. Magistrates are restricted to two-year sentences, however the district and Excessive Courtroom can impose phrases of so long as seven years and life imprisonment, respectively.
The defence lawyer mentioned in lots of circumstances, even rank and file protesters transferring by the bizarre prison justice system have misplaced the presumption of innocence.
Typical circumstances concern prices like rioting, though many defendants weren’t caught within the act however as a substitute close by the scene or carrying tools like goggles or masks. Each objects had been utilized by protesters and journalists to guard themselves from tear gasoline and pepper spray, which grew to become 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 circumstances protesters had misplaced the presumption of innocence as judges would difficulty 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 unimaginable – these usually are not honest trials, that’s not the rule of legislation,” the lawyer mentioned.
Gradual wheels of justice
Felony procedures have additionally taken longer, partly because of COVID-19, mentioned 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 by 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 by an illegal meeting case or largely quite simple circumstances,” Bickett informed Al Jazeera primarily based on knowledge he’s compiling for an upcoming Georgetown Regulation report.
Bickett’s prison case took a 12 months and a half from begin to end, he mentioned.
Bail has additionally develop into harder to safe even for these charged for offences that don’t contain the safety legislation, and may additionally include onerous circumstances similar to curfews, or guidelines associated to highschool for younger defendants.
Longer and harsher sentencing
Sentencing has additionally develop into harsher no matter age or previous prison document, mentioned Steven Vines, a veteran Hong Kong journalist who left the town in 2021. Public order circumstances that after might need resulted in fines or neighborhood service now appeal to jail time.
HKDC knowledge discovered that of practically 3,000 individuals prosecuted, 67 % had been convicted, receiving a median jail sentence of 1.6 years. Sentences for suspected protest “leaders” and other people charged beneath the nationwide safety legislation are even longer, and plenty of face a number of prices.
“Folks with no prison convictions by any means are being given custodial sentences for issues like illegal meeting, which previously would’ve incurred a positive, nothing extra. People who find themselves being convicted of extra critical offences are getting sentences that are akin to armed robbers with a prison document,” Vines informed Al Jazeera.
Georgetown’s Lai, nonetheless, says this isn’t completely sudden.
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 more durable on non-violent protesters amid prolonged circumstances 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 legislation are essential to revive order after 2019’s protracted protests introduced the territory to a standstill.
The town’s new chief government John Lee, a former police officer who was safety chief through the protests, plans to enact a native model of Beijing’s safety legislation. Hong Kong may additionally 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 subsequent two years as a result of prolonged backlog – the nationwide safety circumstances may 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.