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Amnesty to shutter Hong Kong offices, blames the security law

HONG KONG: Amnesty International marketing leaflets are seen in their office in Hong Kong, as the Human Rights organization announces it will be closing its offices by the end of 2021 citing Beijing’s enacted national security law as a reason. – AFP

HONG KONG: Amnesty International said yesterday it will shutter its Hong Kong offices because of the threat posed to staff by a national security law that has fronted a sweeping crackdown on dissent in the business hub. The decision came the same day a court in the Chinese city convicted a former food delivery driver of inciting secession by shouting slogans in the second national security case to come to trial. China imposed the law last year in response to massive and often violent democracy protests, transforming Hong Kong’s political, cultural and legal landscape and introducing mainland-style speech curbs.

Anjhula Mya Singh Bais, chair of Amnesty’s board, said the decision to close had been made “with a heavy heart” and was “driven by Hong Kong’s national security law”. “(It) has made it effectively impossible for human rights organizations in Hong Kong to work freely and without fear of serious reprisals from the government,” she added. The decision ends more than four decades of the international human rights group’s presence in the city.

Amnesty maintains two offices in Hong Kong. The first is a local branch that focuses on human rights and campaigns in the city itself. Recent reports published by the team have included investigations into how the security law has been deployed and studies of the police’s use of force against democracy protesters. The second office is a regional headquarters that carries out research and advocacy work across East and Southeast Asia and the Pacific.

Amnesty said the local office would close on October 31 while the regional office would move out “by the end of 2021”. Hong Kong dubs itself “Asia’s World City” and has long advertised itself as a business-friendly gateway to mainland China with its own separate legal system and speech freedoms unseen on the mainland. As a result, many international businesses, media groups and non-governmental organizations have used the city as a regional hub.

Arrests and asset freezes
But sweeping political changes in the last two years have created risks for any organization that might criticize or disagree with China’s government. The national security law imposed after the 2019 democracy protests covers any offence China considers secession, subversion, collusion with foreign forces or terrorism.

More than 70 people, including many of Hong Kong’s most prominent democracy activists, have since been charged with security crimes. The security law also empowers authorities to freeze the assets of any individual or entity marked as a security threat and most of those arrested are denied bail until trial. Earlier this year, Hong Kong’s most outspoken pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily collapsed after its assets were frozen and its top executives were charged.

Dozens of civil society groups have disbanded in recent months in a bid to avoid a national security investigation, often after being labeled “subversive” by China’s state-controlled media. Major tech companies such as Google, Facebook and Twitter have spoken publicly about their concerns about Hong Kong’s security law. Last year, The New York Times cited the law when it announced it was relocating most of its Asia headquarters from Hong Kong to Seoul.

Secession charge
A Hong Kong man who chanted protest slogans was found guilty of inciting secession yesterday in the second national security case to come to trial as authorities wield a sweeping new law to snuff out dissent. Ma Chun-man, a 31-year-old food delivery driver, was convicted by a judge of trying to separate Hong Kong from China by chanting slogans and displaying placards, as well as through interviews with reporters last year.

China imposed a national security law in response to massive and often violent democracy protests in the city two years ago, in a move that has brought mainland-style political speech curbs to the once outspoken business hub. The city’s debut national security trial took place in July when a man was convicted of terrorism and secession after he rode his motorbike into police while flying a protest flag.

But Ma’s prosecution was more of a legal weather vane because-much like the vast majority of upcoming national security trials-his offences did not involve a violent act and centered purely around his speech. Prosecutors said slogans Ma used that incited secession included “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times”, “Hong Kong independence, the only way out”, “Hong Kongers, build our own country”, “One nation, one Hong Kong” and “All shall be valiant, start armed uprising”.

Ma’s lawyers said their client was merely trying to prove “exercising freedom of speech is not unlawful”. His slogans, they argued, were “empty words” and “a fool’s ravings” that did not reflect any plan or resources. But Stanley Chan, one of the judges specially chosen by the government to try security cases, disagreed and said Ma acted like “a human recorder repeating political statements”. “The defendant was constantly, unreservedly inciting others to commit acts that are explicitly banned in… the national security law,” Chan said.

Whether Ma had actual plans or committed acts to separate Hong Kong from China was irrelevant to convicting him of inciting others, Chan said. “In a society with rule of law, no one enjoys infinite rights and freedom, otherwise the destructive and subversive effects would go without saying,” Chan said. Ma, who has been in detention for the last 10 months, pleaded not guilty and did not take the stand during his trial. He will be sentenced at a later date and faces up to seven years in jail. – AFP


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