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UN Experts Urge Hong Kong High Court to Uphold International Human Rights Law In Activists’ Cases

November 6, 2017

A day before the Hong Kong Final Court of Appeal’s hearing on whether it would allow pro-democracy activists Joshua Wong and Nathan Law to appeal their prison sentences, two UN experts urge the court to consider their cases “in accordance with Hong Kong’s obligations under international human rights law.”

“We fear that if their sentences are upheld, this will have the effect of stifling the expression of dissenting opinions, the right to protest and the overall work of human rights defenders,” the experts say in a statement. (See unofficial HRIC translation: Traditional, Simplified) “The right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly protects people, especially those sharing dissenting opinions.”

In August, Wong and Law, along with fellow activist Alex Chow, were re-sentenced to between six and eight months of imprisonment following a successful appeal by Secretary for Justice Rimsky Yuen asserting that the original sentences of community service for the activists’ actions in a 2014 protest were too light.

Commenting on the Secretary for Justice’s pursuit of harsher sentences for the activists, the UN experts also urge “the Hong Kong authorities to respect the independence of judicial powers and the rule of law.” The experts also remind the Hong Kong authorities of their obligations to protect freedom of expression and peaceful assembly under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Hong Kong is a party and is due to report in March 2018.

“The UN human rights experts’ strong support for the right of the Hong Kong people to exercise their fundamental rights and freedoms comes at a critical time,” said Sharon Hom, Executive Director of Human Rights in China. “As mainland Chinese authorities continue to intensify their encroachment on those rights, the Hong Kong SAR government must stand firm in protecting its own people under the ‘one country, two systems’ principle.”

The UN experts who joined in the statement are:

  • David Kaye, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression
  • Michel Forst, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders

Joshua Wong and Nathan Law were released on bail from prison on October 24 pending their appeal to the Court of Final Appeal. If the high court rules against the appeal applications, the lower court’s (the Court of Appeal) ruling will be final and Wong and Law will be returned to prison. (Alex Chow has decided not to appeal.)

The activists were student leaders in the citywide demonstration in fall 2014 over the mainland Chinese government’s reneging on its promise to allow universal suffrage in the 2017 Chief Executive election. In the evening of September 26, 2014, several hundred gathered in a peaceful protest near the Hong Kong Central Government Offices complex. Wong and Chow, along with other protesters, climbed over fences to enter the blocked-off forecourt of the complex, while Law urged other protestors to join in—to “reclaim” an area dubbed “Civic Square” that had been open to public access previously but blocked off since July that year. The police responded with pepper spray and batons. The clash triggered a mass protest that would last for 79 days. The Umbrella Movement, named after the umbrellas used by protesters to shield them from the pepper spray, mobilized hundreds of thousands in the city and captured headlines around the world.

For their actions that night, the three were sentenced in 2016 to community service after being found guilty by a Magistrate’s Court of “unlawful assembly” and “inciting” others to take part in unlawful assembly. (Wong and Law later completed their services and Chow was given a suspended sentence.) But the Hong Kong government sought heavier sentences. After his unsuccessful appeal to the lower court, Hong Kong’s Secretary for Justice Rimsky Yuen appealed to the Court of Appeal, arguing that, “even though the relevant conduct was not very violent,” heavier sentences were needed to “prevent people from engaging in such conduct”—in other words, to act as a deterrent.

In its ruling on August 17, 2017, the Court of Appeal agreed with the Secretary for Justice, and resentenced Joshua Wong to six months’ imprisonment, Nathan Law to eight months, and Alex Chow to seven months. The judges scolded the activists for their “arrogant and conceited ways of thinking” and for acting “wantonly in an unlawful manner . . . on the pretext of pursuing their ideals or freely exercising their rights conferred by law.” They also lament that “an unhealthy wind has been blowing in Hong Kong.”

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Other Resources

  • Hong Kong: Conversations toward a Democratic Future, September 21, 2016 (English, 繁体, 简体)

A project that brings together young local Hong Kongers and mainlanders living in Hong Kong in a series of conversations aimed at increasing mutual understanding and respect.

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