Hong Kong’s justice minister has warned that freedoms of expression and assembly do not absolve those breaking the law of criminal responsibility, as she defended the jailing of media tycoon Jimmy Lai Chee-ying and others for their roles in illegal gatherings during the 2019 protests.
Teresa Cheng Yeuk-wah stressed such rights were not absolute when she urged the public on Monday to recognise the legal principles limiting the freedoms and the trade-off necessary for maintaining order.
“Both the Basic Law [the city’s mini-constitution] and the Hong Kong Bill of Rights guarantee the freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, procession and demonstration as fundamental rights,” Cheng wrote in her official blog.
“At the same time, they also recognise that these rights are not absolute and are subject to restrictions, which are necessary for respecting the rights of others and protection of public order.”
The secretary for justice defended the sentences handed down to Lai and several opposition figures a day after Beijing’s top office in Hong Kong accused Bar Association chairman Paul Harris of abandoning his professional ethics and the rule of law by speaking out against the punishments.
The central government liaison office spokesman also called Harris an “anti-China politician” and suggested the Bar Association remove him as its chairman.
Harris stepped into controversy last week over his championing of the right to peaceful protests after Lai and nine other opposition figures were convicted in relation to illegal assemblies staged in August 2019.
During a media interview, Harris noted it was the first time a Hong Kong court had imposed prison terms for illegal assembly, arguing peaceful demonstrations were a legal means for people to express their grievances. Otherwise, he said that resentment could turn to “damaging channels, which can include violence”.
Cheng’s blog piece on Monday did not directly refer to Harris or the court rulings on Lai and the other defendants, but her remarks will be widely seen as directed at the lawyer’s intervention.
Quoting rulings from the Court of Final Appeal last year over the constitutionality of the anti-mask law and the emergency regulation ordinance, she said: “As will be apparent from its wording, the freedom of assembly, procession and demonstration under … the Bill of Rights is not absolute but is subject to lawful restrictions including the interests of public safety, public order and the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.”
Cheng also noted the recent Court of Appeal ruling that upheld the constitutionality of the restrictions the government imposed on protesters using the open square outside the government headquarters in Admiralty.
She wrote: “The Court of Appeal has now affirmed that while the government has a duty to facilitate public expression of opinions at or near its premises, it must also ensure this does not compromise the normal and effective operation and public safety including the safety of the other users of the premises.”
Lai was among 10 prominent opposition figures sentenced at West Kowloon Court earlier this month for their roles in two illegal marches during the 2019 anti-government protests.
Five of the group were jailed for between eight and 18 months, with the rest handed suspended sentences.
Lai was convicted of organising and taking part in an unauthorised assembly by turning a lawful gathering of an estimated 300,000 people in Victoria Park into an illegal march to Central on August 18, 2019.
In sharp contrast to the often violent clashes between police and protests during the 2019 social unrest, the August 18 demonstration was largely peaceful.
Separately, Lai was convicted of taking part in an illegal rally on August 31, 2019, when more than 2,000 people defied a police ban and marched from Wan Chai to Central.
Lai was jailed for a total of 14 months in those two cases.
The United States, Britain and Canada have raised concerns over the sentences.
British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said the prosecution of leading opposition figures was “unacceptable”, while US Secretary of State Antony Blinken demanded the release of “those detained or imprisoned for exercising their fundamental freedoms”.
Marc Garneau, the Canadian foreign affairs minister, also described the sentences as a “stifling of peaceful political expression”.