The Endless Legal Limbo of Hong Kong’s Street Protesters

By late August, as the government continued to stonewall the protesters’ growing demands, many young people became more desperate. They routinely relied on Molotovs, bonfires, bricks, lighter fluid, and anything metal to shatter windows. After one officer shot and wounded a young protester in the gut, a protester elsewhere lit a man afire. The tension grew.

In the neon-lit shopping district of Causeway Bay, Chan Chun-kit, a 33-year-old property manager, stepped into a crowd that had gathered near Victoria Park to drum up interest in an upcoming election. Officers ordered the group to move along. “Haak ging! ” someone shouted, according to court documents. Black cops. It was a frequent taunt, rooted in the belief of many Hong Kongers that police had ties to organized crime.

Chan wore black clothes and a black face mask. Four weeks earlier, Carrie Lam had signed a decree banning face coverings during illegal assemblies. “Remove the face mask!” an officer commanded. Chan walked off but didn’t get far. Inside Chan’s bag, police found a helmet and gloves, a gas mask, and 48 six-inch plastic zip ties.

Plastic ties are legal to carry, then and now. But they offered new uses during the protests: to hang banners, create barricades, and in a few notable cases, to restrain people. Within this context, police made plastic ties evidence of a crime. Prosecutors charged Chan with possessing instruments fit for unlawful purpose, a petty offense created during British rule to thwart burglaries before they happened.

At trial, Chan’s friend states that the two had planned to move furniture from an office and use the ties to secure everything in transport. The magistrate rejected the story. In the ruling, he inferred that the defendant intended to use the ties to create barricades and “further the unlawful purpose of using them in armed confrontations, fights, [and] inflicting injuries. ” The court found Chan guilty in August 2020 and sentenced him to five and a half months in prison.

Chan appealed. Before the bench, his lawyer, Steven Kwan, argued that plastic ties did not fit the definition of an instrument fit for unlawful purpose. Hong Kong law prohibits specific restraints, such as handcuffs or finger cuffs that could subdue someone, along with devices like a skeleton key that could open a locked room. The appellate judges rejected the appeal but found there was an important legal question about the law and let Chan appeal to the city’s highest court. His petition is scheduled for June.

In prison, Chan met people who were serving similar sentences for carrying knives. The inmates, Kwan said, found the idea of ​​plastic ties as weapons to be hilarious.

In June 2020, China’s legislature approved a national security law and lodged it in Hong Kong’s constitution. It listed four new crimes — secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign forces — and gave police seemingly unchecked powers to investigate, search, seize, and detain. It didn’t take long for people to see the law’s true intentions. After police arrested Jimmy Lai, a newspaper publisher who advocated for foreign sanctions, the government targeted politicians who organized their own primary elections to seize the majority in the legislature, and activists who ran the annual vigil to honor people gunned down by Chinese soldiers in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Before long, civil society organizations and labor unions closed, fearing arrests.

Just after dawn on December 2, 2020, nearly two dozen officers banged on the door of Keith Fong’s family’s apartment. Armed with a search warrant, police then charged the student leader with carrying offensive weapons in public, as well as two new counts: obstructing justice and resisting police work. Sixteen months after his arrest on Apliu Street, Fong, then 22, faced years in prison.

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