UN human rights experts* expressed deep concern about the arrest of Hong Kong pro-democracy activist and woman human rights defender Chow Hang-Tung on charges of “incitement to subversion” and being a foreign agent, and urged authorities to refrain from the use of the National Security Law and reconsider its application.
Ms. Chow, a human rights lawyer, was arrested on 8 September 2021. She was a member of the Hong Kong Alliance, an advocacy group which organised the annual candlelight vigil marking the 1989 protests in Tiananmen Square. Several other activists have been similarly arrested and charged under the National Security Law.
“Terrorism and sedition charges are being improperly used to stifle the exercise of fundamental rights, which are protected under international law, including freedom of expression and opinion, freedom of peaceful assembly and the right to participate in public affairs,” the experts said.
The experts have communicated in detailed written analysis their concerns to the Government of the People’s Republic of China about the National Security Law in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region highlighting the law’s fundamental incompatibility with international law and with China’s human rights obligations.
The experts also raised their concerns over the qualification of “foreign agent” under the National Security Law, in which reference is made to funding received from foreign governments and activities benefitting them. The experts called on the Government to ensure that associations can seek, receive and use funding from foreign or international sources, without undue impediments.
On 8 July 2021, I wrote a letter with seven other UN Human Rights experts regarding the continued detention of human rights defender Mr. Hejaaz Omer Hizbullah, who has been charged with terrorism- related offences.
Mr. Hejaaz Omer Hizbullah is a prominent lawyer and a human rights defender, and member of the Muslim minority in Sri Lanka. Mr. Hizbullah is a strong advocate against hate speech in the country and has been involved in a number of high- profile cases, including with regard to violence and discrimination towards the Muslim minority in Sri Lanka.
Mr. Hizbullah was the subject of one previous communication sent on 22 June 2020 (LKA 4/2020). In this communication we expressed concern over the arrest and detention of Mr. Hizbullah on 14 April 2020 and his lack of access to legal counsel. Mr. Hizbullah was initially under investigation for his alleged involvement in the Easter Sunday attacks of 2019, before the focus of the investigation was changed to his involvement with the Save the Pearls charity. The Government did not respond.
On 19 August 2020, the Criminal Investigations Department (CID) filed a report regarding an ongoing investigation into Mr. Hizbullah’s activities. The report allegedly claimed that Mr. Hizbullah had acted as counsel on several occasions for individuals involved in terrorism and unlawful activity, and that he had been collecting data and information on various attacks on Muslims.
As previously communicated, the evidence allegedly incriminating Mr. Hizbullah was related to phone calls he made with a suicide bomber at the Easter Sunday attacks. It has been alleged that Mr. Hizbullah made 14 phone calls to this individual over a period of five years, being his legal representative in civil property dispute cases.
Mr. Hizbullah later faced accusations that he radicalised children at the charity, Save the Pearls. He is the only member of the organisation that has been arrested. Since his arrest, leading figures of the organisation have sworn affidavits attesting to the falsity of rumours that children were radicalised. And The former Head of Counter- Terrorism at the Sate Intelligence Services of Sri Lanka, who is also a member of the organisation, has sworn an affidavit attesting to the fact that the activities of the charity were entirely legitimate, in housing and educating vulnerable children.
During the first nine months of his arrest and detention that took place on 14 April 2020, Mr. Hizbullah was permitted just four visits from his legal counsel, all of which were supervised by the authorities. His lawyers filed a petition to the Court of Appeal, which was granted on 15 December 2020, allowing him to speak with his lawyers confidentially for the first time since his arrest. His access to lawyers is still reportedly limited and he can speak only occasionally to his family over the phone.
On 8 January 2021, at 2pm, Mr. Hizbullah was due to make his first appearance before the Colombo Fort Magistrate. At 1:55pm, Mr. Hizbullah’s lawyer was informed that Mr. Hizbullah had contracted COVID-19 and would be taken to a quarantine centre. No further information was given about Mr. Hizbullah’s condition or recovery. On 18 January 2021, Mr. Hizbullah was returned to his original cell.
On 18 February 2021, Mr. Hejaaz Hizbullah was produced before the Colombo Fort Magistrate’s Court. The court decided the extension of his custody until 3 March 2021.
On 3 March 2021, Mr. Hizbullah was charged with “inciting communal disharmony” under Sri Lanka’s Prevention of Terrorism Act section 2(1)(h). A few days later, on 9 March 2021, the Government issued a regulation expanding the application of the Prevention of Terrorism Act. According to the text of the regulation – The Prevention of Terrorism (De- radicalisation from holding violent extremist religious ideology) Regulations No. 1 of 2021 – persons suspected of acts of, or incitement to violence or religious, racial or communal disharmony, would be held in custody and undergo a process of “ rehabilitation ” at an undefined “ Centre ” for a maximum period of two years, instead of having the relevant authorities instituting the established judicial procedures against them.
To understand Nicholas Opiyo, you need a sense of perspective. You need to understand adversity. Above all, you need an ability to reflect on things that happen to you from a particular point of view. Nicholas Opiyo grew up at the height of the war in northern Uganda. He knows what injustice is. He knows what suffering is. Above all he knows what abuse of power is.
On Tuesday December 22, 2020, while Opiyo and four other human rights lawyers were having lunch at a Kampala restaurant, heavily armed and hooded men surrounded them, handcuffed them and bundled them abduction style into minivans and sped off. They surfaced at Kireka Special Investigations Unit on the outskirts of Kampala.
The regime harassing Opiyo is caught up in its own dilemmas and drama. It has forgotten that what they profess now is based on their point of view. The narrative they are pushing is that foreign powers are working through certain political leaders and prominent government officials to ferment instability and eventually overthrow the current government.
We recall the Kale Kayihura saga and the circumstance under which President Museveni took drastic measures to purge the police of “weevils” suspected of serving subversive foreign interests. Museveni insists that the police (and probably other security agencies) are heavily infiltrated and may have elements determined to undermine the Ugandan State. This may explain recent changes in the leadership of the Special Forces Command, the police and the intelligence organisations.
Opiyo may be in the dock now but in a wider sense, the Museveni regime is also in the dock. The money laundering charges aside, Opiyo’s real offence is that Museveni’s hitherto darlings in the power centres of the West are lending the likes of Opiyo a keen listening ear. It may be unsettling to the Uganda government that policies towards Uganda may be defined by the input of people like Opiyo.