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Radio Free Asia

Hong Kong Court Rules That People Who Message About Protests Can Face Charges

2021-03-25 -- A Hong Kong court on Thursday ruled that public order charges of the kind frequently used to target participants in the 2019 pro-democracy protest movement can be extended to people who weren't present at the scene.

In a landmark ruling using the common law notion of "joint enterprise," the Court of Appeal found that anyone who encouraged or promoted an "unlawful assembly or riot" could be held liable under the Public Order Ordinance, even if they weren't physically present.

"If there is sufficient evidence to establish their liability... they are no longer innocent people exercising their freedom of expression," the court said.

"They have crossed the permissible line and become a perpetrator to an unlawful assembly or riot and should be held liable as such."

Judges Jeremy Poon, Andrew Macrae, and Anthea Pang found that principal offenders were those who carried out a criminal act, while "an accessory aids, abets, counsels, or procures the principal to commit an offense."

The ruling means that anyone deemed to have "masterminded," funded, equipped, or promoted an unlawful assembly could now face criminal charges, according to local news site Stand News.

It also includes anyone providing back-up support by collecting and handing out supplies, anyone standing lookout to warn of oncoming police officers, and anyone driving a vehicle that helps protesters evade arrest.

Hundreds targeted

Police have used the Public Order Ordinance to target hundreds of participants in the 2019 protest movement, bringing charges of "illegal assembly" or "incitement to participate in an illegal assembly" against dozens of pro-democracy activists.

The court made the ruling after the city's department of justice requested it in relation to charges of rioting brought against protesters on July 28, 2019 in the Sheung Wan district of Hong Kong Island.

An earlier ruling by the same court in September 2020 -- also at the request of the department of justice -- found that joint enterprise wasn't applicable in connection with Public Order Ordinance offenses.

The Ordinance was enacted in 1967 under British colonial rule to quell leftist riots that left 51 people dead and more than 800 injured in that year. The charges carry maximum jail sentences of 10 years and five years respectively.

By the end of January 2021, 2,457 people had been charged with "rioting," "unlawful assembly," and other protest-related offenses, the English-language South China Morning Post reported.

So far, 565 have been convicted, 49 have had their charges withdrawn and 156 have been acquitted, the paper said.

Reported by Fong Tak Ho for RFA's Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.

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