Hong Kong’s last governor Chris Patten has criticised the Public Order Ordinance for failing to conform to United Nations human rights standards, which came after localist Edward Leung was sentenced to six years in jail for rioting on Monday.

“We attempted to reform the Public Order Ordinance in the 1990s and made a number of changes because it was clear that the vague definitions in the legislation are open to abuse and do not conform with United Nations human rights standards,” Patten wrote in a statement.

“It is disappointing to see that the legislation is now being used politically to place extreme sentences on the pan-democrats and other activists.”

Chris Patten.
Chris Patten. File Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

In a 2005 report and elsewhere, the United Nations Human Rights Council has expressed concern that “the Public Order Ordinance could be applied to restrict unduly enjoyment of the rights guaranteed in article 21 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.”

Leung was convicted of rioting under the Public Order Ordinance, which defines rioting as an unlawful assembly that leads to a “breach of the peace.” Leung is facing retrial for another rioting charge in connection with the Mong Kok unrest.

The clashes broke out during Lunar New Year in 2016 after authorities attempted to clear street hawkers. The police said after Leung’s sentencing that 91 have been arrested in relation to the protests and 28 have been convicted. Three fled Hong Kong while awaiting trial.

Patten’s administration amended the Public Order Ordinance in the 1990s, but the changes were reversed by the Provisional Legislative Council selected by the Chinese government in 1997.

Edward Leung
Edward Leung. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Malayancup.

Deterrence effect

Other UK politicians have also voiced concern over Leung’s sentencing. Geoffrey Nice, a barrister who led the UN trial of Slobodan Milosevic in the Hague, said in a statement that Leung’s sentence was “clearly designed as a deterrent to mute further protest.”

“It is easy to think that imprisonment in this case is simply unjustified. It may be seen as a mean but dangerous act by those in this delicate world who still believe in the values of democracy. Sentencing politically troublesome young men to achieve collateral objective rarely works and often backfires, in the end,” Nice said.

Fiona Bruce, the Chair of the UK’s Conservative Party Human Rights Commission, also said: “[Leung’s sentencing] is only one of many examples of the Hong Kong government using the law to intimidate the pro-democracy movement and curtail freedom of expression.”

“It is shocking that one in three pro-democracy legislators and more than one hundred protesters have been prosecuted by the government since the Umbrella Movement of 2014.”

“This is an unacceptable crackdown which has a chilling effect on the pro-democracy movement, forcing people into self-censorship and silencing opposition,” she added.

Priscilla Leung
Priscilla Leung. Photo: LegCo.

Responding to Patten’s comments, local pro-Beijing politician Priscilla Leung said that the sentencing on Monday was in line with public expectations and will achieve a deterrence effect.

“For foreign political figures commenting on the situation, if the same thing happened in their own countries, would they say the same thing? We are concerned that young people use violence to attract international attention, and become even more violent,” Leung said.

“For the defendants today, I think the sentence is relatively long and will be enough to act as a deterrent. I am quite satisfied with the present judgment and sentence,” Leung added.

Holmes Chan is a reporter at Hong Kong Free Press. He covers local news with a focus on law, politics, and social movements. He studied law and literature at the University of Hong Kong.