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September 24, 2019

Hong Kong Volunteer Lawyers Provide Public Education During Unrest

Around 150 people, most middle-aged, pack into the Hong Kong church to hear a group of young lawyers speak about their rights and responsibilities. The meeting opens with a hymn in English. Then there's a 45-minute presentation in Cantonese about the principles of law and practical advice about search warrants, co-operating with the police, and whether you have to hand over your phone if asked by a security official.

Large-scale protests have swept Hong Kong for more than three months, and lawyers are trying to teach citizens how to navigate the new charged environment. "They're here to ask questions for their children," said one of the lawyers from  the Neutral Legal Observers Group, set up in August "to promote, protect and strengthen the rule of law in Hong Kong.”

The protests were triggered by legislation that would allow extradition of suspects to mainland. The government has promised to scrap that bill after intense public pressure, but it was only one of five demands made of the authorities. The four remaining are an independent inquiry into the use of force by police, amnesty for arrested protesters, an end to describing the protests as riots; and universal suffrage.

While the vast majority of ongoing demonstrations are peaceful, there is a violent fringe, with many parents afraid their children will be caught up in the mayhem, or targeted by the police. Stories of kids being seized by the police for being near the scene of protests are rife, as are accounts of police severely beating people in or near protests.

Dozens of hands shoot up after the presentation is over. "Can someone physically resist being unlawfully arrested?" asks a middle-aged man. (Not really, answers one of the lawyers.) One woman asks if young schoolchildren who sit down, holding hands, and surround their school are assembling unlawfully. (Probably, technically, but they're unlikely to be prosecuted.)  

Several audience members ask what can be done about the problem of police not showing their IDs by removing or covering up their numbers on their uniform, making it very difficult for people to report police misconduct. (Not much, except to video incidents and try to pursue the official channels for recourse.)

There's a discussion about whether families can bring private prosecutions against police officers, and speculation about what happened at the Prince Edward Metro station a week earlier, with stories that three protestors are still missing after violence there.

Over the last few months, personal details about hundreds of police officers, their families and partners have been shared online, sometimes accompanied by threats. This "doxxing" is happening on both sides, with pro-Beijing elements doxxing protesters, including by reporting them to their employers. An elderly woman asks if possessing but not distributing doxxing material is a crime. (No.)

One of the solicitors in the lawyers' group explains they wear green shirts in an attempt to identify themselves as neutral. Colors have become important emblems in Hong Kong, with the protestors wearing black, while the counter-protestors who attack them wear white. Pro-democracy supporters are said to be yellow, pro-police supporters blue.

"People on all sides should respect the law, that's why I'm here," she says. "I'm not even a criminal lawyer, and no, my employers don't know I do this in my spare time."

There's been quiet and overt pressure on lawyers and other professionals not to get involved in the protests. Big firms offer free, in-house lunches on days when protests are scheduled, in an unsubtle signal to stay away.

But these lawyers are trying to protect Hong Kong's rule of law, which is under increasing threat. The pubic seminar covered not just rights, but also citizens’ obligations to cooperate with the police when they are acting lawfully and other issues, including liability for criminal damage and unlawful assembly.

Davyd Wong, a solicitor who helped set up the group, stresses that it strives to be "independent, apolitical, dispassionate and impartial." 

It's an increasingly difficult balance to maintain, with anger intensifying on all sides. "A few years ago people would have been happy to let the police into their buildings to pursue people running away, but now that's changed. Many more people are suspicious of the police and don't trust them to act fairly," said one of the lawyers.

Towards the end of the meeting a parent asks what technically constitutes self defense (It's complicated.)

Things wrap up after two hours, with the lawyers quietly satisfied by how many people showed up. The priest says other local parishes want similar advice sessions in the weeks to come. There's no sign of the unrest ending anytime soon.

Human Rights First’s new report “Hong Kong’s Fight for the Rule of Law” is available here