Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor

Police Interference with Freedom of Assembly

After the rollback of the laws relating to freedoms of association and of assembly by the SAR Government in the small hours of 1 July 1997, police interference with freedom of assembly has become more apparent. Before the handover, the police has already a practice of setting up demonstration areas, usually a small piece of land surrounded by iron barricades guarded by police to restrict demonstrators to a particular spot. It was not unusual for policemen guarding the demonstration areas to block from view banners displayed by demonstrators on the iron barricade or on the floor. Occasionally the police did even not allow the demonstrators to hang their banners and posters on the barricade, saying that they were police property.

At and after the handover, for all demonstrations targeted at Chinese leaders, demonstration areas have invariably been restricted to locations quite far away from the demonstration targets, thereby creating conflict and distrust of the police among demonstrators.

The Secretary for Security and a senior police officer responsible for investigating a case involving arrested demonstrators both cited a provision in the Public Order Ordinance on designated public places as the source of power. This is a clear mistake of law as such places have to be gazetted and are intended for reducing police control not for confining demonstrators. The sites police have set up near Xinhua, the Foreign Office Building, and the Wanchai Convention Centre have never been on the list of designated areas. Such misconception of the law indicates the lack of appreciation by the authorities of the limits of their power. This is particularly alarming as the police have chosen to tighten control on public processions and meetings.

On the eve and day of the handover, the police were largely professional, restrained, and reasonable. At the handover, police in uniform were stationed near important spots out of eyesight. Our observation indicated that police video teams, which in the past had frequently videotaped all demonstrators at peaceful demonstrations, had disappeared. The police were unusually "shy" and therefore much less intimidating compared to most of the occasions before the handover when senior Chinese leaders or officials were demonstration targets.

However, since the handover, Tung Chee Hwa's stress on responsibilities at the expense of rights, social control instead of personal freedoms, his stress on "rule by law" rather than "rule of law" and the inadequate and weakening check and balance mechanism have all paved the way for diminishing police self-restraint. The tightening of laws governing public gatherings by amending the Public Order Ordinance has created a more restrictive atmosphere. In this climate, the problem of police interference with demonstrations has been worsening and reached its climax during the World Bank Conference in Hong Kong.

Since the addition of the ground of "national security" as a ground to ban public gatherings, a new set of guidelines were needed to implement the controversial newly amended Public Order Ordinance. Following the issuance of vaguely drafted and internally inconsistent guidelines relating to "national security" the police began to monitor the political demands of the demonstrators and wanted to be informed of the slogans of the demonstrators intended to chant. The nature of the work of the police force has since been substantially changed as the police are no longer just monitoring behaviour but policing people' political opinions. In processing an advance notification required by the law, a peaceful demonstration with separatist overtones might be prohibited under such new guidelines if the guidelines are to be taken literally without reference to international human rights standards.

An important feature of post-handover police control of demonstrations is the police's planned intimidation, by prominent deployment of force, of demonstrators led by organizers selectively targeted at by the police. Another highly objectionable feature is the readiness to use force on such demonstrators. All these raise the question of whether the police are law enforcers or uniformed law breakers themselves. Another question is whether the police has begun its transformation into a machinery of brutal oppression.

An exceptionally large number of policemen were deployed during the World Bank Conference, far outnumbering demonstrators. Cordons of human-chains formed by policemen would engulf such demonstrators to escort and restrict them in their procession. The demonstrators would be video-taped all the way. Moreover, the usual practice of conducting secret surveillance to avoid alarming a police target has been replaced by deliberate high profile watching of such demonstrators, accompanying them to the toilet and to restaurants, often even after the dispersal of a demonstration. Harassment and infringement of privacy has been adopted by the police as an integral part of their strategy.

A journalist covering the World Bank Conference in Hong Kong in late October complained to the Monitor, "I noticed a big crowd of police officers." In their midst, barely visible, was a small number of protesters, carrying a banner. They were surrounded by at least five cordons of policemen holding hands, and surrounded by many more policemen shooing the press away. It was extremely difficult, not to say impossible, for journalists to even attempt at doing our job. The demonstrators were so surrounded by the police that we could not hear their declarations, and we could not even approach them to get hold of their press statement.

"Again, the manner in which the police was sending us away from the demonstration was a totally unnecessary use of authority, the demonstrators, and the journalists, were peaceful and orderly, and the real commotion was being created by the massive police presence."

Another new police tactic is stopping a procession very far away from its destination. By withholding the right of the procession to proceed, the police try to extract a promise from the demonstrators to enter the demonstration areas specifically set up for the demonstrators. Demonstrators would then be stopped from heading for places other members of public have access to. Demonstrators were therefore kept further away than other members of the public from their demonstration targets simply because they were demonstrators. Those demonstrators who valued their rights would inevitably challenge the legitimacy of the police holding their rights hostage to extract promises. As a result tension mounted and distrust of the police was aggravated. The situation would become quite beyond the control of the organizers if some rights-conscious demonstrators were there. The very tactic designed to extract compliance become the source of disobedience and conflict. To a great extent, the cause of possible disorder comes from the police tactics. The police-cum-protesters march, the big crowd of police surrounding the demonstrators, and the police blocking off roads to prevent demonstrators from approaching are often the real cause of traffic jams.

Those who suffered most under this post-handover intimidation and harassment strategy were those demonstrators specifically targeted. The police have a tradition of discriminating against demonstrations according to the nature of the organizers' political status (ordinary activists compared to those holding public office bearers), their political opinion, and their demonstration targets. But with the apparent loss of police self-restraint, the situation has deteriorated rapidly.

An example is the group of demonstrators targeted by the police during the World Bank Conference. The case has been investigated by the Monitor. Evidence, including unpublished footage taken at the scene indicates brutal and unlawful police behaviour. The demonstrators criticized the Bank as worsening poverty by imposing fiscal policy requirements at the expense of the interest of poor. As a few demonstrators were targeted by the police, the demonstrators were under intimidating police escort in their march to the Conference venue. The procession to the Conference Centre where the Bank met was stopped hundreds of metres away from the Centre, at a spot where the demonstrators could not even see the Centre building. The demonstrators turned back. With all other ways blocked, using an escalator they went up to a pedestrian flyover. After some of the demonstrators had already gone up to the flyover, the policemen formed cordons of human barricades to stop the demonstrators moving in the other direction and confined them on a narrow space on the flyover. Those demonstrators who originally chose to stay at the back of the procession and who had walked in a leisurely manner up to the flyover ahead of the police, were separated from their fellow demonstrators and stranded at one end of the flyover leading to the Immigration Tower. They were brutally arrested even though they held no banner nor placard, chanted no slogans - nothing but just waited there and watched the police stopping their fellow demonstrators who had just come up. Five of these peaceful demonstrators were unlawfully arrested and some were handcuffed, including two slightly built women accused of assaulting police officers. Even the former Deputy of Public Prosecutions, Peter Nguyen commented - on his last day in post - that it was "a bit inappropriate" to handcuff those women demonstrators.

The following is an observation by the journalist mentioned above on the police control measures. Understandably, police security around the Convention and Exhibition Centre during the WBG/IMF meetings has been very tight. However, it has probably been too tight, and has at times turned into outright harassment, not just of the protesters, but of the journalists trying to cover the protests, too.

The Police had arranged a very narrow space for the protesters, squashed between the Wan Chai Fire Station and the border of the pavement, allegedly because "traffic could not be disrupted by the protest". The press was allocated an even narrower space, fenced off and called "press area" which only allowed reporters, cameramen and photographers to see the profile of the demonstrators, without managing to see what their banners called for, or even managing to have a front view of the tiny, fence-caged group of protesters.

The space was so insufficient, that in order to have an approximate view of the protest we had to queue up, take a quick look, and make way for the other reporters behind. In front of the demonstration, some photographers had started to protest against not being allowed to take front-view pictures, and eventually the police allowed people to go in front: first, on a "five at a time" basis, and then eventually gave in, allowing for another fenced-off "press area" in front. The protester's banners were still half visible, because a row of policemen was standing in front of them, and I could not read what a banner standing on the ground said. Another police measure to make the lives of the demonstrators difficult is the arbitrary condition imposed on processions prohibiting the use of amplification devices on a vehicle while in motion. The imposition of the condition is arbitrary. It was not imposed in the 1995 Legislative Council elections. Press covering demonstrations are sometimes hindered by the police from performing their duties properly. For instance, during the World Bank Conference, the requirement of arbitrary registration and sticker labels were imposed despite the obvious press accreditations hanging around the journalists' necks.

1998 (c) Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor