An international rights group has called on the Hong Kong government to drop charges against nine leaders of the city's 2014 pro-democracy movement, saying the prosecutions were "politically motivated."
"Amnesty International urges the Hong Kong government to drop the charges against the nine leaders of the Umbrella Movement as they stem solely from the peaceful exercise of their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly," the group said in an annual review of the human rights situation in Hong Kong.
"The government should stop using politically motivated prosecutions and other legal procedures against peaceful protesters to silence critical voices and deter people from participation in the public sphere," it said.
The report said current public order laws in Hong Kong fail to respect or protect citizens' rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly, as guaranteed by international human rights covenants.
Hong Kong's trial of nine pro-democracy activists accused of "inciting" the 2014 Occupy Central, or Umbrella, movement ended in December, with a verdict expected on April 9.
Movement initiators Benny Tai, Chan Kin-man and the Rev. Chu Yiu-ming stand accused of causing a "public nuisance" by encouraging the protests. Amnesty called the charges "vague and ambiguous."
Fellow defendants included barrister and lawmaker Tanya Chan, former lawmaker Lee Wing-tat and democracy activists Eason Chung, Raphael Wong and Tommy Cheung. All nine pleaded not guilty.
Protections deteriorated severely' in 2018
The Amnesty International report said that human rights protections in Hong Kong had "deteriorated severely" during 2018, especially with regard to the city's traditional freedoms of expression and association.
"The Hong Kong government deprived the civil and political rights of individuals or groups advocating a change of government or government policies," the report said, citing the banning last September of the Hong Kong National Party (HKNP) for its pro-independence views.
"The concept of 'national security' as used by Hong Kong government lacks clarity and legal predictability and is arbitrarily applied to suppress dissent and political opposition," Amnesty said. "These restrictions have a chilling effect on the enjoyment of the right to freedom of expression in the city."
It said the ban on the HKNP was "a dangerous blow" to freedom of association and expression with potentially far-reaching consequences.
"To use sweeping references to “national security” to silence dissenting voices is a tactic favored by repressive governments," the report said.
Individual bans on would-be election candidates Agnes Chow, Lau Siu-Lai and Eddie Chu were also violations of citizens' rights to freedom of expression, it said.
"The Hong Kong government’s decision to disqualify them appears to discriminate against a particular opinion on political grounds, which would be a violation of freedom of expression," Amnesty said, adding that the bans had sparked further self-censorship among others.
Pelosi voices concerns
Meanwhile, U.S. House Speaker and Democratic Party lawmaker Nancy Pelosi expressed concern over planned changes to Hong Kong's extradition laws, saying the move could affect the safety and interests of U.S. citizens and businesses in the city.
Pelosi made the comment during a meeting with former colonial-era second-in-command Anson Chan and pro-democracy lawmakers Dennis Kwok and Charles Mok during their visit to Washington, government broadcaster RTHK reported.
Pelosi also said she was deeply concerned by the human rights situation in Hong Kong, adding that the city's promised autonomy under "one country, two systems" was under tremendous pressure due to increasing intervention by Beijing, RTHK reported.
Hong Kong political commentator Willy Lam said the visit was particularly sensitive for Beijing.
"Of course this particular trip is sensitive because of the Sino-U.S. trade war," Lam told RFA. "A lot of people are hoping that the U.S. will make a lot of moves that increase pressure on Beijing."
He said there is a long history of visits by Hong Kong's democratic politicians to the U.S., however.
"They want to get the attention of U.S. members of Congress and U.S. politicians," Lam said. "The U.S. won't put obvious pressure on Beijing over the undermining of one country, two systems, or increasing [Chinese] control over Hong Kong, but the end result could be that it does indeed put pressure on China ... not to erode Hong Kong's high degree of autonomy."
Reported by Han Jie for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Lau Siu-fung for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.