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Hong Kong police wrong to ban Tiananmen vigil, court rules

Hong Kong police’s decision to ban a Tiananmen vigil last year was unlawful, a court ruled on Wednesday.

A Hong Kong court has overturned the conviction of political activist and barrister Chow Hang-tung (pictured after her arrest in June 2021) who was jailed over a Tiananmen vigil
A Hong Kong court has overturned the conviction of political activist and barrister Chow Hang-tung (pictured after her arrest in June 2021) who was jailed over a Tiananmen vigil - Copyright AFP/File Peter PARKS
A Hong Kong court has overturned the conviction of political activist and barrister Chow Hang-tung (pictured after her arrest in June 2021) who was jailed over a Tiananmen vigil - Copyright AFP/File Peter PARKS

Hong Kong police’s decision to ban a Tiananmen vigil last year was unlawful, a court ruled on Wednesday, as it overturned the conviction of jailed democracy activist Chow Hang-tung.

The ruling is a rare rebuke of authorities in a city where the public commemoration of Beijing’s deadly 1989 crackdown has been virtually wiped out in recent years.

Chow, a 37-year-old lawyer and one of Hong Kong’s most prominent democracy activists, led a now-disbanded group that used to organise the city’s annual candlelight vigils to mourn those killed in Tiananmen Square when China sent troops to crush democracy protests.

Police have banned the last three vigils citing the coronavirus and security fears and the courts have already jailed multiple activists who defied those bans, including Chow.

Pro-democracy media tycoon Jimmy Lai is also among those behind bars for defying the various bans on the vigils, in his case for the 2020 event.

Chow was jailed for 15 months in January for writing articles urging the public to “light candles to seek justice for the dead”, which a lower court said amounted to inciting others to defy the ban.

But High Court judge Judianna Barnes on Wednesday said police wrongly banned the vigil in 2021 as they did not “proactively and seriously consider” ways to faciliate a public gathering, as was required by law.

As the government failed to prove the ban was legally valid, Chow’s articles would no longer constitute a crime and her conviction was scrapped on appeal.

Despite her court victory, Chow remains in custody as she faces further prosecutions including for national security charges which carry up to a decade in jail.

Hong Kong was formerly the only place in China where mass commemoration of Tiananmen was tolerated but Beijing has been remoulding the city in its authoritarian image after huge and sometimes violent democracy protests in 2019.

Chow was arrested on the morning of June 4, 2021 when her articles appeared on social media and in a newspaper calling on residents to mourn Tiananmen victims.

At the time, police warned that the vigil was banned due to the pandemic and that thousands of officers would be on standby to halt any “unlawful assemblies”.

But judge Barnes said on Wednesday that police failed to fulfil their duty under the law to take reasonable measures to facilitate public gatherings, such as imposing conditions on social distancing.

“Although the organisers expressed willingness to follow any reasonable demands by the police, the police only raised questions… and did not propose measures or conditions that could obviously be considered,” the judge said.

AFP has contacted the Department of Justice and Hong Kong police for comment.

In mainland China, censors have long scrubbed what happened at Tiananmen Square, both online and in the real world.

Commemoration of the Tiananmen crackdown in Hong Kong has largely been driven underground.

Last year, multiple statues marking the historical event were removed from university campuses while an activist-run museum was shut down.

AFP
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