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20 April 2020

IBA condemns arrests of top Hong Kong barristers over 2019 pro-democracy protests

Barristers Martin Lee QC and Dr Margaret Ng were last year awarded the IBA's Human Rights Award for defending the rule of law

Hong Kong protests

Protests on China National Day in Hong Kong on 1 October led to police conflict Shutterstock

The International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute has condemned the arrests of 15 pro-democracy figures in Hong Kong over the weekend in what the organisation says is a ‘further clampdown on civil liberties and democracy’ in the former British territory.

Among those arrested included democratic politician and legislator Martin Lee QC and barrister Dr Margaret Ng, who last October were jointly awarded the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Award for their efforts to defend freedom, democracy and the rule of law.

The 15 arrests were for their roles in the protests in August and October that were part of an anti-government movement that was sparked by the aborted extradition bill, according to the South China Morning Post.

The leaders of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement have long maintained their right to protest without consent from the city’s authorities. Those rights, they say, are protected under the Joint Declaration and the Basic Law, which guarantees Hong Kong residents, among other things, freedom of speech and the freedom of assembly and demonstration. The Basic Law, which Lee helped to draft, remains in place until 2047.

The IBA’s Human Rights Institute said in statement: “[The] arrests demonstrate the continued assault on the freedom of expression and right to assembly in Hong Kong. Indeed, we are gravely concerned that the arrests of senior lawyers and legislators who set out to protect human rights  in a non-violent and proportionate manner, and pursuant to both rights granted in both domestic and international legal frameworks, represent an assault on the rule of law itself.”

It added: “The United Nations Human Rights Committee has repeatedly expressed concern that charges of ‘unlawful assembly’ against peaceful protesters in Hong Kong risks violating human rights.”

Also among the 15 arrested on Saturday was media tycoon Jimmy Lai, founder of Next Media Group and Hong Kong newspaper Apple Daily, whose support for the pro-democracy movement and criticism of Beijing has landed him in hot water before, having previously been arrested in February on similar charges.

The IBA said: “The arrest of a prominent media owner also sends a chilling message to those whose journalism is vital to a free society… we call on the authorities to discontinue such politicised and targeted prosecutions immediately and urge the Hong Kong government instead to engage in constructive dialogue with the leaders of the pro-democracy movement to foster a climate in which their legitimate concerns over democracy and human rights can be met.”

The arrests, which were also criticised by the US and UK authorities, were defended by the Hong Kong government, with the City's Security Bureau saying they were carried out in line with the law. 

“In Hong Kong, everyone is equal before the law ... No one has any special privileges,” a bureau spokesman told Reuters.

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