The conviction of Edward Leung Tin-kei on rioting charges, with a sentence of up to ten years in jail, shows that the Public Order Ordinance is urgently in need of reform because it is being used to disproportionately punish political protestors in Hong Kong.
The Public Order Ordinance places severe punishments on protestors involved in ‘unlawful assembly’, ‘disorder in public places’ and ‘rioting’ without providing sufficiently tight definitions of what these crimes are.
Edward Leung Tin-kei has been convicted of rioting on the basis that an event is a riot if an ‘unlawful assembly’ leads to a ‘breach of the peace.’ The vague definitions of ‘unlawful assembly’ and ‘breach of the peace’, coupled with the extreme sentences that are attached to ‘rioting’ or ‘illegal assembly’ crimes, mean that this is a particularly effective tool of political suppression. Whether someone was throwing bricks or an accidental observer, under the Public Order Ordinance they could be prosecuted as rioters.
Edward has admitted that he was at fault that evening. This meant, critically however, that he was arrested before the unrest started, after confronting a police officer who was hitting a young woman. He has pleaded guilty for the crime relating to this confrontation, which carries a lesser sentence. That should have been it, but under the Public Order Ordinance’s vague definitions he is also a ‘rioter’ and looks likely to be locked up for the best years of his life as a result.
The Public Order Ordinance has been repeatedly condemned by the United Nations for excessively curtailing freedom of assembly and expression. It is a colonial era law and the United Kingdom are therefore partially responsible for this poorly defined piece of legislation. The United Kingdom are obliged under the Sino-British Joint Declaration and international law to promote human rights in Hong Kong; we should lead the calls for the Hong Kong government to reform the Public Order Ordinance to bring it in line with international rights standards.