(Hong Kong) – Hong Kong authorities should release the hundreds of arbitrarily detained pro-democracy leaders and activists who are now at heightened risk from the city’s surge in Covid-19, the Hong Kong Democracy Council and Human Rights Watch said today.
The labor union leader Lee Cheuk-yan, 65, and the barrister and pro-democracy leader Albert Ho, 70, have tested positive for Covid-19, media have reported. Veteran activist Koo Sze-yiu, 75, who suffers from Stage 4 rectal cancer, was earlier reported to be Covid positive, but a later report said he is not. Koo was taken into custody on February 4, ahead of his planned protest against the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics. He was originally arrested for “inciting subversion” and later charged with “sedition.” He has not been seen since February 5, and did not appear in a court hearing on March 3 due to his “unsuitable physical condition,” the prosecution said.
“Hong Kong authorities are making a bad situation even worse by incarcerating unjustly held democracy activists in detention facilities amid the city’s spike in Covid-19,” said Maya Wang, senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch.
About 1,000 among the 7,538 people in custody in Hong Kong have tested positive for Covid-19 in the past two weeks, according to the Hong Kong Correctional Services Department.
Covid-19, like other infectious diseases, poses a higher risk to people who live in close proximity to one another. This risk is particularly acute in detention facilities if they are overcrowded, poorly ventilated, or lack adequate healthcare facilities. Older people are also at particular risk. The low vaccination rates among detainees and prisoners in Hong Kong compounds the risk: only 36 percent had received their first shot by end of January, compared with 71 percent in the general population. Hong Kong currently leads the world in Covid-19 deaths per capita, due to low vaccination coverage among older people.
Detainees and prisoners in Hong Kong generally have access to adequate medical care under Hong Kong’s public healthcare system. While they are being tested and treated for Covid-19, Hong Kong’s healthcare system is buckling under the pressures of the pandemic.
The Correctional Services Department has suspended all visits for family members since February 4. The authorities have also imposed restrictions on lawyers’ visits during outbreaks at individual facilities; beginning on March 7, all visits by lawyers will be suspended. Families can only obtain information about the detainees via the detention facilities’ welfare officers.
In addition to releasing all those wrongfully detained, Hong Kong authorities should give priority to releasing children, older people, and others who are medically vulnerable, as well as those held in pretrial detention who are eligible for bail, Human Rights Watch said.
During his last court appearance on February 5, Koo represented himself, saying that “Human rights are above the regime, the people are above the country. I do not plead guilty.”
“Hong Kong authorities have abused the law to deprive people of their freedoms of expression and assembly,” said Brian Leung, executive director of Hong Kong Democracy Council. “Protesting against the Beijing Olympics is no crime, and foreign governments should press the Hong Kong government to free Koo Sze-yiu immediately.”