A Hong Kong civil rights coalition which organised numerous demonstrations during the 2019 mass protests is facing a probe by the city’s police force into allegations that the group has breached the Societies Ordinance.

Investigators from the force have requested the Civil Human Rights Front (CHRF) hand in six items related to its operations, according to its convenor Figo Chan, who received a letter containing the request when he reported back to the police on Monday in connection with protest-related charges for which he is currently on bail.

Figo Chan
Figo Chan. File photo: Selina Cheng/HKFP.

According to a letter dated last Wednesday, police said the CHRF registered as a society in July 2006 under the Societies Ordinance and cancelled its registration around two months later. The force said, based on information from the media and social media platforms, there were signs that the CHRF continued to operate as a society afterwards, which allegedly breached section five of the legislation.

Police asked the CHRF to explain why it did not re-apply for registration and questioned whether the Facebook page “Civil Human Rights Front” was established and managed by the group. The force also asked the group to list out all the public demonstration and rallies it had held since September 2006.

The protest organiser was asked to provide information on its sources of income and expenditure, as well as the bank account it used for receiving any funding.

The CHRF organised numerous public processions with police approval during the 2019 anti-extradition bill movement, including the historic “two million” march on June 16 that year. But the group later faced difficulty in getting police permission to hold demonstrations, as the months-long unrest often descended into violent clashes between police and pro-democracy protesters.

The last police-approved demonstration organised by the CHRF was the 2020 New Year’s march, which the group estimated produced a 1.03 million turnout.

In the letter Chan received on Monday, police cited a petition to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights co-signed by the CHRF and 25 other rights groups last December. Police asked what the group’s intention was in signing the petition which was in protest against what they saw as the excessive use of force on demonstrators and people in custody.

china extradition bill june 16 may james (15) (Copy)
Hong Kong demonstrators photographed on June 16, 2019. Photo: May James/HKFP.

The CHRF had to respond to police request on or before May 5. Chan told reporters the group would seek legal advice and had no further comment.

Rights ‘not absolute’

On Tuesday, Chief Executive Carrie Lam refused to comment on the police request for the CHRF’s records. The city’s leader referred to a blog by the justice minister on Monday, which mentioned freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, procession and demonstration are guaranteed under the Basic Law.

But these rights are “not absolute” and are “subject to restrictions,” Lam said, adding such restrictions are in place to safeguard the rights of others and protect the city’s public order and stability.

Carrie Lam
Carrie Lam. Photo: RTHK screenshot.

“I’m sure the police force took actions in accordance with the law. But as I said, I won’t comment on cases of individual law enforcement departments,” she said.

Last month, the CHRF came under fire from pro-Beijing and state media, which criticised its role in organising street protests, saying it had “pav[ed] the way for black-clad rioters and separatists to stage rallies and demonstrations.” They also alleged – without proof – that the CHRF had received foreign funding, an accusation they deny.

At least six pro-democracy groups announced to withdraw from the coalition following the reports, including the Democratic Party, Civic Party, Hong Kong Professional Teacher’s Union, Hong Kong Association for Democracy and People’s Livelihood, and Neighbourhood and Worker’s Service Centre.

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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.