British human rights watchdog Hong Kong Watch has urged the city’s authorities to “ensure fair trials for political activists” in accordance with the law. It also suggested stripping the power to prosecute from the justice secretary – a political appointee.

In a statement published on Wednesday, the watchdog called on Hong Kong to ensure fair trials guaranteed under the Basic Law, the Bill of Rights Ordinance and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. It referred in particular to the trials of protesters such as Edward Leung, and that of Benny Tai and other pro-democracy Umbrella Movement leaders.

Edward Leung. Photo: In-Media.

“The trials are already potentially politicised by the fact that the Secretary for Justice, a political appointee, is responsible for the prosecution of criminal offences. The former Secretary for Justice, Rimsky Yuen, sought disproportionate sentences for political activists which, if upheld in court, could violate the right to a fair trial,” Hong Kong Watch said.

Leung and others are facing up to ten years in jail over protests that broke out in Lunar New Year 2016 over the clearance of street hawkers by authorities. The trial is currently ongoing at the High Court and Leung has been remanded in custody after admitting a charge of assaulting police.

Rimsky Yuen. Photo: In-Media.

Hong Kong Watch expressed concerns that the proposed sentencing of Leung and other protesters could be “disproportionate.”

“The charge of ‘rioting’ and ‘incitement to riot’ under the Public Order Ordinance is vague and could lead to excessive punishment for protesters,” it said.

It said it is “vital in these highly political trials” that protesters be given a fair hearing and the judiciary remain independent, while noting the case of a mainland tourist who was found to be photographing the jury last week may “compromise the independence of the jury.”

‘Unprecedented’ charges

The watchdog also said that the charges brought against Tai and eight other Occupy leaders over their involvement in the 2014 Umbrella Movement are “unprecedented and appear designed to impose a vindictive and excessive punishment on the protest leaders which would amount to a violation of freedom of expression.”

Chan Kin-man, Benny Tai and Reverend Chu Yiu-ming. Photo: In-Media.

Referring to the charge of “incitement to incite public nuisance,” Hong Kong Watch called it “an absurd breach of Basic Common Law principles” and tagged on “to maximise the punishment they receive and punish political dissidents.”

The defence had argued that the “incitement to incite” charges were unconstitutional and unnecessarily formulated to increase pressure on them. But Judge Johnny Chan refused the demand to quash the double inchoate charge.

“If the charges are upheld, this would violate the right to a fair trial and freedom of expression, both of which are guaranteed by Hong Kong’s constitution,” Hong Kong Watch continued.

The watchdog said the “most effective remedy” would be to remove the prosecution responsibilities of the justice secretary, adding that judges and juries should remain impartial and uphold human rights in the meantime.

Established in 2017, Hong Kong Watch “seeks to investigate the status of rights, freedoms and rule of law in the city, raising concerns with the UK government and the wider international community should violations of the Basic Law and Sino-British Joint Declaration take place.”

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Karen is a journalist and writer covering politics and legal affairs in Hong Kong for HKFP. She has also written features on human rights, public space, regional legal developments, social and grassroots activism, and arts & culture. She is a BA and LLB graduate from the University of Hong Kong.