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Hong Kong Police Launch Probe Into Organizers of Mass Protest Marches

2021-04-27 -- Police in Hong Kong are investigating a group that has organized a string of mass protest marches over more than two decades since the city was handed back to China in 1997, the group's officials and former officials said.

The Civil Human Rights Front (CHRF), which has organized an annual protest march on July 1 to mark the handover anniversary for more than two decades, including peaceful protests of more than one million people in 2019, is being investigated by police under a law governing the running of civil society groups.

According to a letter sent to CHRF convener Figo Chan, the group is being asked to give reasons why it hasn't registered as a "society" under the Societies Ordinance, and asking it to prove it is exempt from doing so, Chan told local media.

He was also asked to provide details of the group's online presence, including who runs its Facebook page, and a list of dates and venues of all marches organized since September 2006, all bank accounts and expense accounts, as well as funding sources.

If, as reported, the group is proven to have received funding for the U.S.-based National Endowment for Democracy, its members could be prosecuted under a national security law imposed by the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) on Hong Kong from July 1, 2020, for "colluding with a foreign power."

The law bars Hongkongers from accepting funding from overseas-based groups, meeting with foreign politicians, or collaborating with foreign political organizations.

A civic organization

Former CHRF convener Johnson Yeung said the organization had never had any issues with the authorities before now.

"In the past, the police always regarded us as a civic organization, and were very happy to liaise with us," Yeung said. "They would usually get in touch with us [ahead of annual marches] and ask us to go to the police station for a meeting to discuss details."

He said police had begun imposing more restrictions on demonstrations, which increased in frequency, and were not just limited to the July 1 date, from 2013 and into the 2014 Occupy Central pro-democracy movement.

The CHRF is an umbrella body that typically coordinated and liaised with a multitude of civil society groups, political organizations and trade unions to run the peaceful demonstrations.

One of its key roles was liaising with the police, and applying for a "letter of no objection" ahead of the marches, under the much-criticized Public Order Ordinance (POO).

Yeung said he fears the letter is a precursor to the banning of the CHRF, which will be a further attack on the city's promised freedoms of speech and association.

"The worst-case scenario is that they ban it under the Societies Ordinance," he said.

Chief executive Carrie Lam declined to comment on individual cases when asked about the letter on Tuesday.

She warned that the freedoms of speech, assembly and association "are not absolute," and must take place within the law.

In 2018, the Security Bureau cited Article 8 of the Societies Ordinance to ban the Hong Kong National Party, for its advocacy of independence for Hong Kong, under provisions in the law related to national security and public safety.

'A floating red line'

The government also said on Tuesday that it wouldn't be taking any bookings for its venues, citing COVID-19 restrictions, effectively barring the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of the Patriotic Democratic Movement in China from holding its annual candlelight vigil to mark the 1989 Tiananmen massacre on June 4.

Chow Hang-tung, vice chairwoman of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, said the group would submit an application to hold the vigil anyway on football pitches run by the Leisure and Cultural Service Department.

Asked if she was concerned about being accused of breaking the national security law, Chow described the law as "a floating red line," and that, even as a barrister, she had trouble figuring out what words or actions might be deemed a violation of the law.

One of the often-repeated slogans at the vigils was "End one-party dictatorship!", referring to the CCP.

When asked if the slogan would contravene the national security law, Lam replied only that "the CCP should be respected."

Permission for the vigil was denied last year, and police later arrested 24 people for "taking part in an illegal assembly," and "inciting others to take part in an illegal assembly," including democracy activist Joshua Wong.

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

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