Photo credit: Hong Kong Watch
CIVICUS, a global civil society alliance, and Asia Democracy Network (AND) are appalled by the conviction of six pro-democracy figures affiliated with the-now defunct 612 Humanitarian Relief Support Fund (the 612 Fund) - for failing to register the fund. The court’s decision is another blow to freedom of association in Hong Kong and clearly highlights the regression of civic and democratic space in the region.
The 612 Fund was founded in June 2019 to provide legal, humanitarian and financial support to protesters during the 2019 protests against the restrictive Extradition Law Amendment Bill that was later retracted. The fund’s name “612” stems from the date 12 June 2019, when the police cracked down on largely peaceful protesters who demonstrated against the extradition bill.
In 2021, as part of the systematic crackdown on protesters and civil society groups, the police ordered the 612 Fund to submit information about its donors and beneficiaries, leading to the forced closure of the fund and a case filed against them. All six defendants: Cardinal Joseph Zen, barrister Margaret Ng, ex-lawmaker Cyd Ho, scholar Hui Po-keung and singer-activist Denise Ho - trustees of the 612 Fund - and the fund’s secretary Sze Ching-wee pleaded not guilty. However, the Magistrate Court on 25 November found all defendants guilty of failing to apply for registration or exemption from registration within a specified time under the Article 5A and 5C of the Cap 151. Societies Ordinance. They were fined between HKD 2,500 – 4,000 each (approximately USD 321 - 513).
Freedom of association is guaranteed in the Hong Kong Bill of Rights Ordinance, which incorporates the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), that Hong Kong has ratified. Under international law, freedom of association should be protected for both registered and un-registered associations and a safe and enabling environment should be created for them to operate. The conviction of members of the fund by the Hong Kong authorities is inconsistent with this.
“The conviction of members of the 612 Humanitarian Fund’s highlights the ever present risks faced by those who want to support civic space and democracy in Hong Kong. The use of such bureaucratic measures to criminalise activists is appalling and contravenes the territory’s international human rights obligations to respect and protect freedom of association,” said Cornelius Hanung, Asia Advocacy and Campaigns Officer of CIVICUS.
In July 2022, the UN Human Rights Committee raised concerns over the excessive number of civil society organisations, which have relocated or ceased to operate since the enactment of the National Security Law and called for a review of the Societies Ordinance and other relevant legislation with a view to removing the procedural and substantive obstacles to register and run a society. UN experts have expressed concerns that the provisions adopted in the NSL do not conform with international legal obligations under the ICCPR and is deeply concerned about the overly broad interpretation of and arbitrary application of the law.
In addition to this, in May 2022, police arrested five former trustees of the 612 fund – Cardinal Joseph Zen, Margaret Ng, Denise Ho, Cyd Ho and Hui Po-Keung - under Article 29 of Hong Kong’s draconian National Security Law (NSL) for the overbroad and vague crime of “colluding with foreign forces” before releasing them on bail except Cyd Ho, who was at the time, serving six-months in jail for being part of a vigil in June 2019. In November 2022, the 612 Fund’s former secretary Sze Ching-wee was also arrested under the NSL and seized by national security police at Hong Kong airport and released on bail.
“We call on the Hong Kong authorities to immediately halt the judicial harassment against the pro-democracy activists linked to the defunct 612 fund and drop all investigations under the draconian national security law. The international community must not remain silent in the face of such abuses but must stand up and stand in solidarity with those defending human rights ”, said Ichal Supriadi, Secretary General of Asia Democracy Network.
Civic space in Hong Kong is rated as "Repressed" by the CIVICUS Monitor