Hong Kong lawmakers vote to keep order laws

HONG KONG, Reuters

Hong Kong lawmakers voted on Thursday to preserve existing laws that impose heavy penalties on unlawful gatherings.

After a fierce debate spanning two days, the government received backing from the 60-member legislature in an unprecedented motion to maintain the status quo.

Current rules require people to seek police permission seven days ahead of large demonstrations. The maximum penalty for failing to seek permission is five years in jail.

The Hong Kong Bar Association, leading academics and pro-democracy forces wanted to see the shortening of the notification period and penalties softened.

At the start of the debate on Wednesday, Secretary for Security Regina Ip cited the hosting of the World Economic Forum next year in Hong Kong as a reason for the need to control unlawful assemblies.

“There is a trend whenever meetings concerning globalization of trade or the economy takes place, there are likely to be riots involving large numbers,” Ip said.

The debate over the public order laws flared in June when a group of students was arrested for protesting without permission.

The students later accused police, who used pepper spray to disperse the crowd, of being unnecessarily violent.

Authorities finally decided not to charge the protesters.

Freedom of speech and the right to demonstrate in Hong Kong, which Britain returned to China in 1997, are guaranteed under the territory’s mini-constitution.