Paddy Ashdown: British must denounce the abuse of its old colonial laws

In an article published in the Financial Times, Hong Kong Watch's Patron Lord Ashdown shared his concerns about the application of colonial laws in Hong Kong

Increasingly, one of the most effective tools in the armoury of authoritarian regimes and the enemies of democracy are colonial-era laws. You only need to look at Singapore’s efforts to clamp down on gay rights, or Pakistan’s blasphemy laws that now carry the death penalty. Both are little more than cut and paste jobs from British colonial rule.

Nowhere is this more clearly seen than in Hong Kong, where democrats and activists are facing a crackdown based on an assortment of outdated colonial legislation.

This week Edward Leung, one of Hong Kong’s most talented young activists, was sentenced to six years in jail for “rioting” for his involvement in the Mong Kok protests of February 2016. This was more than a Hong Kong police officer received for raping a woman in a hotel room. Aged 27, Mr Leung neither has a prior criminal record, nor did he in any way join those who threw stones. Yet the British-designed Public Order Ordinance allowed the Hong Kong government to lock-up and shut-up one of their most powerful opponents for six of the most formative years of his life.

His case is not isolated. Since the Occupy Central movement of 2014, which was one of the biggest peaceful mass movements for democracy this century, more than 100 protesters have faced prosecution based on the same old British law. One of the most controversial cases saw two former lawmakers sentenced to jail for supposedly committing “illegal assembly” inside the Legislative Council. Imagine the outcry if an MP in the UK was jailed for staging a protest inside parliament.

The Public Order Ordinance is one of Britain’s worst legacies in Hong Kong and has repeatedly been criticised by the UN for excessively curtailing freedom of expression. But it is not the only colonial era law that China is using to intimidate and silence the democracy movement. Benny Tai, the mild-mannered law professor who masterminded protests in 2014, is being charged with “public nuisance”. In a bid to maximise his sentence, they have stacked absurd charges on him: not only accusing him of public nuisance, but also “incitement to public nuisance” and “incitement to incite public nuisance”. The punitive use of this outdated common law charge from the British colonial era does not reflect well on the Hong Kong government, which claims to be signed up to UN human rights standards. And it does not reflect well on the British government, which is largely silent about this.

I am not claiming that all of the figures who have been prosecuted are innocent, but the sentencing is disproportionate. It is possible that Mr Leung may have been guilty of a lesser crime. But he did not deserve such punitive sentencing. Sir Geoffrey Nice, who led the prosecution of Slobodan Milosevic at the international tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague, has commented that “sentencing politically troublesome young men to achieve collateral objective rarely works and often backfires — in the end”.

When I talk with young activists from Hong Kong, they are increasingly demoralised. They have taken to the streets to call for their democratic rights but have been met with repression; repression facilitated by colonial laws and by the near silence of Britain. We must recognise our responsibility. The last British governor of Hong Kong, Lord Patten, attempted to reform the Public Order Ordinance in the 1990s because “the vague definitions in the legislation are open to abuse and do not conform with United Nations human rights standards”. The UK is obliged to promote human rights in Hong Kong. Given that laws written by the UK are facilitating the repression of young democrats, we should be advocating change. Instead we are quiescent. With the spread of tyranny and our history, it is unwise and shameful.

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The writer is a former British diplomat and former leader of the Liberal Democrats

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