Hong Kong government wary of labelling protesters ‘terrorists’
Violence meets definition of ‘terrorist acts’ according to local and international laws, but “We cannot possibly tell the world that Hong Kong grooms local terrorists, hundreds of them. We would face an avalanche of consequences such as sanctions, disinvestment and a downgrade of credit rating. Our image would be torn up further.”
The violent actions of anti-government protesters in Hong Kong last week ticked all the boxes of “terrorist acts” as defined by international and local laws, multiple senior government sources told the Post.
But the administration has no plans to officially designate protesters as terrorists to avoid the devastating consequences such a decision could trigger.
“We cannot possibly tell the world that Hong Kong grooms local terrorists, hundreds of them,” one senior official said, adding the heat of US-China trade war made the matter even more sensitive.
“It does not help the current situation and will cause public panic. We would also face an avalanche of consequences such as sanctions, disinvestment and a downgrade of credit rating. Our image would be torn up further.”
After the 17th straight weekend of protests triggered by the government’s now-withdrawn extradition bill, radicals escalated their violent rampages to new levels on October 1, China’s National Day, and again over the past weekend, after the city leader’s Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor invoked the Emergency Regulations Ordinance to enact a ban on masks.
Throughout Friday and the weekend, protesters looted, trashed and burned shops, bank outlets and metro stations, forcing the closure of the city’s entire railway network. They also blocked roads, wearing masks in open defiance of the new law. On National Day alone, at least 104 people were sent to hospital, two of them in critical condition.
“The administration must guard the dignity of the Hong Kong passport, which now enjoys visa-free status from 167 countries. The number would drop to 20 if we admit to breeding domestic terrorists,” the source continued.
“Calling the protesters rioters caused a backlash. The harsher label would only make the situation worse.”
The sources pointed to Cap. 575 United Nations (Anti-Terrorism Measures) Ordinance, first enacted in Hong Kong in 2002 in line with a UN resolution after the September 11 terror attacks in the United States, that spells out terrorism related offenses.
The section defines a “terrorist act” as an action that causes serious violence against a person, serious damage to property, endangers a person’s life, creates a serious risk to the health or safety of the public, seriously interferes an electronic system, or seriously disrupts an essential service, facility or system.
He said protesters had met that definition, causing serious disruption at Hong Kong International Airport on August 12, leaving almost 1,000 flights cancelled, while the city’s rail network was still partially paralysed after protesters began vandalising stations.
The UN act also categorises terrorism as actions or threats intended to compel the government or an international organisation, or to intimidate the public, and made for the purpose of advancing a political, religious or ideological cause.
A “terrorist” is defined as a person who commits, or attempts to commit a terrorist act.
The chief executive could make an application to the Court of First Instance for an order to specify a person as a terrorist or terrorist associate.
However, a police insider said the designation would not result in any greater powers of arrest, and would mainly grant more investigative freedom for officers, which would do little to stop the violence.
“It would be just a gesture for now,” he said. “Our first priority now is to bring peace back. Freezing the terrorists’ property under the ordinance still would not help us better. We are very careful in the choice of words to avoid stirring up society.”
Another senior government official echoed that sentiment and added: “The protesters’ push for revolution, liberation and the five demands, these are obvious political and ideological causes. But we have no plan to bring the matter to court at this stage.”
The language surrounding protesters has hardened as the violence has escalated, and in August, Yang Guang, a spokesman for the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office of the State Council, said the city had seen the “first signs of terrorism emerging”.
While police steered clear of using the phrase then, in discussing the violence that gripped the city before National Day, on October 1, a spokesman said Hong Kong was “one step closer to terrorism”.
The Post understands the Interdepartmental Counterterrorism Unit, comprising more than 40 officers from the six disciplined services, such as the police, customs, fire services and immigration, is closely monitoring developments.
As of Friday, police had arrested 2,119 protesters and prosecuted 406. Around half of those detained were charged with rioting, while 62 were charged with illegal assembly.
Lawmaker and the leader of the Civic Party, Alvin Yeung Ngok-kiu, said designating protesters as “terrorists” would not help solving the crisis, but showed a lack of wisdom from the government.
“From the extradition law to the new anti-mask law, does any of these bans help ease the situation? They created more chaos,” said the barrister.
Simon Young Ngai-man, a law professor at the University of Hong Kong who also focuses on anti-terrorism laws, said some of the acts seen in recent protests may come within the definition of “terrorist act” under the ordinance, but urged the government to be cautious with the legislation even if it might not be considering it at the moment.
“The government must tread extremely carefully because these laws can severely undermine fundamental rights such as the presumption of innocence,” Young said. “It would also contribute to greater widespread fear and alarm in the community.”
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