International human rights groups have written a joint open letter to Hong Kong’s Chief Executive urging her government to respect its human rights obligations and after five protest observers were arrested.

The organisations slammed the authorities for contravening its duty to respect, protect and facilitate human rights observers in monitoring assemblies in the city. Five were arrested during pro-democracy protests sparked last June by the now-withdrawn extradition bill.

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Mass arrest in Causeway Bay on January 1. Photo: May James/HKFP.

According to the letter, three human rights monitors from the Civil Rights Observer were arrested in Causeway Bay on January 1. It happened during a police dispersal after a police-approved procession was cut short over clashes between officers and protesters at a vandalised bank. The observers explained their role to the officers, but were still taken into custody for taking part in an unlawful assembly.

The arrested observers claimed that they were verbally abused by police officers during their detention which lasted for 40 hours. Their personal belongings, including their clothes, observer uniforms and cards, mobile phones and cameras were confiscated.

Another two arrests took place on last November 18, when two observers from Rights Exposure tried to exit police a police cordon around the besieged Hong Kong Polytechnic University. They were apprehended on suspicion of participating in a riot, despite showing identification proof as human rights monitors.

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Police arrest medics outside PolyU on November 17. Photo: Telegram.

The letter was issued by Amnesty International, Civil Human Rights Observer, Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor and Rights Exposure, and co-signed by 20 other human rights groups.

“We believe that the arrest of the five was arbitrary since they only exercised their legitimate human rights work,” they wrote. “The Hong Kong Police Force should immediately cease criminal investigations into all five in relation to their arrests whilst deployed as monitors…”

Robert Godden, co-founder of Rights Exposure, added that the work of protest observers is legitimate irrespective of whether the police declare the protests unlawful or take action to disperse.

“Carrie Lam should immediately send a clear signal that human rights observers have a right to conduct their work without being harassed or arrested,” he said.

The signatories of the letter also called on the government to set up an independent investigation to look into the use of force by law enforcement during the protests, as well as allegations of police misconduct during detention.

HKFP has reached out to the Chief Executive Office for comment.

Kelly Ho has an interest in local politics, education and sports. She formerly worked at South China Morning Post Young Post, where she specialised in reporting on issues related to Hong Kong youth. She has a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Hong Kong, with a second major in Politics and Public Administration.