Student arrest related to 2019 campus siege raises alarm

Students and pro-democracy supporters continue to be arrested in Hong Kong years after pro-democracy unrest which gripped the city and its universities in 2019-20. In particular, violence erupted after police besieged Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU) in November 2019 in scenes likened by many to a ‘war zone’.

A 20-year-old student was arrested at Hong Kong airport on 16 May 2023 and charged with rioting, as part of the 2019 PolyU riots, along with others. Out on bail, she is now barred from leaving Hong Kong, according to Hong Kong’s Chinese-language Ming Pao newspaper.

The arrest of the woman, who would have been under 18 in 2019, has shocked former students and others who were in the vicinity of PolyU at the time of the riots.

They claim it points to ‘secret lists’ maintained by police which are being used to prevent students and others who were not arrested at the time of the PolyU siege from leaving Hong Kong.

“Many do not know if they are on a list somewhere. Several times people have been arrested, not while they were in Hong Kong but while they were leaving Hong Kong,” Brian Leung, board chair of the Hong Kong Democracy Council, a rights group in Washington DC, told University World News.

Around 1,000 students, including minors, were trapped inside the university during the siege which lasted almost two weeks, as police completely surrounded the campus.

Some attempted daring escapes through sewers, or abseiling from walkways, to be picked up by Hong Kong residents who sympathised with the movement.

Thousands of others battled riot police outside the campus for several days as they tried to keep police from storming the university. Other students were involved in altercations with police in streets further away as they tried to reach the university to help those holed up inside.

It was considered one of the most violent incidents, as months of huge and largely peaceful pro-democracy protests in 2019 over the Hong Kong government’s proposal to allow prisoners to be extradited to mainland China deteriorated into violence.

Around 1,300 were arrested at the time of the siege. While some were let go, many were charged with ‘rioting’, punishable by up to 10 years’ imprisonment, and some with ‘illegal assembly’, which carries a maximum of five years in jail. However, many, including minors – as many school children were at the campus during the siege – were not always charged.

Leung said that at the time “the police surrounded the PolyU campus and many who were making their way out of the campus were not formally arrested by the police but had to go through some sort of police checkpoint. Police did not formally press charges right then but released them on the spot after taking down their names.

“This created fears that even though not all of them were arrested or faced charges immediately, their names are in [police] records.”

Delayed charges

Referring to the amount of time that has lapsed since the 2019 events and the latest arrest, Leung noted that additional evidence collected during ongoing trials may have highlighted the role, or presence, of other people not previously charged.

With an overloaded judicial system, due to the huge caseload after the 2019-20 protests, it may have taken time to gather evidence, including going through huge amounts of video footage. “There is a lot of backlog, a lot of cases being delayed in their system,” Leung said.

However, the PolyU siege is also an important case in the minds of the security authorities, Leung said. “They treat PolyU very seriously. PolyU is seen in terms of the most radical or militant protesters,” he said.

“Also, the PolyU siege captured the imagination of the city and had people’s empathy. So there were a lot of people coming out after work who tried to rescue people from the [besieged] PolyU campus.”

While Hong Kong police previously said they wanted to conclude the criminal investigations related to the 2019-20 protests by February 2023, hundreds of cases are still pending in the courts and Hong Kong’s Chief Executive John Lee Ka-Chiu, who was Hong Kong’s secretary for security at the time of the protests, this week refused to set a time scale for closing police investigations relating to the 2019-20 unrest.

“Unless they set a deadline, we will always have this hanging over our heads, whether or not we are on a list, whether or not we risk being arrested if we try to travel out of Hong Kong,” said one former member of a Hong Kong university student union.

Hong Kong police have arrested 10,279 people in relation to the wider protests during 2019-20 and including the PolyU siege, but have so far charged only 2,910, according to the latest figures provided by police.

Ongoing cases

Court documents filed on Wednesday 17 May 2023 indicated that new cases in relation to the 2019-20 unrest continue to be registered.

According to data from the Hong Kong Democracy Council (HKDC), up to now, 219 people in total have been convicted of crimes committed between 17 November and 20 November 2019 associated with the PolyU siege. Of those, 182 have been convicted of rioting.

Of the 182 convicted of rioting, 17 were convicted in 2021, 72 in 2022 and 93 in 2023.

These 219 convictions are “by far the largest batch of convictions related to any particular occurrence in the 2019-20 Hong Kong protests. In fact, a little over 10% of all protest-related convictions have to do with PolyU,” said Brian Kern, lead researcher at HKDC on political prisoners.

“Most of those people were essentially convicted just because they were on the PolyU campus at the time [of the siege],” Kern told University World News. “For example, it includes volunteer first-aiders and a nurse who was convicted.”

In the most recent spate of convictions, on 16 May, 10 people between the ages of 22 and 29, arrested on the night of the siege, were jailed for up to four years and 10 months for their roles in the riots linked to the PolyU siege.

On 20 May, 13 young people between the ages of 16 and 27 were found guilty of rioting. They had been part of a group that police tried to prevent from reaching PolyU while it was under siege.

All had pleaded not guilty to the charges. However, Judge Ada Yim ruled that all 13 had “intended to participate” in a riot and were guilty.

The 2019 unrest died out amid the COVID-19 pandemic and Beijing’s passing of the National Security Law in June 2020.