Hong Kong Dissidents: Joshua Wong in Prison Isolation, Facing Sleep Deprivation

HONG KONG, CHINA - JUNE 19: Pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong speaks to members of media during a press conference on June 19, 2020 in Hong Kong, China. Wong announced his plans to run in the opposition camp's primaries in the lead-up to Hong Kong’s Legislative Council elections. (Photo by Anthony …
Anthony Kwan/Getty Images

Hong Kong pro-democracy leader Joshua Wong, in police custody after pleading guilty to organizing protests this week, is in solitary confinement with lights on 24 hours a day, triggering sleep dysfunction, dissidents denounced on Tuesday.

Wong is one of the most prominent leaders of the anti-China, anti-communist movement in Hong Kong. As a teen, Wong joined the 2014 Umbrella Movement protests against proposed laws that would have greatly expanded China’s influence in the de-jure autonomous city. Now 24, Wong helped lead the now-defunct anti-communist group Demosisto, which urged young Hongkongers to protest against Chinese violations of “One Country, Two Systems.”

“One Country, Two Systems” is the governing policy of Hong Kong. It legally bans China from imposing communist laws on the city. In exchange, Hong Kong cannot assert sovereignty independent of China.

Hong Kong’s Legislative Council (LegCo) threatened to violate the policy last year with a proposed law that would have allowed China to extradite anyone, regardless of citizenship, present in Hong Kong if China accused them of breaking communist laws. The LegCo law never passed after millions of Hong Kong residents took the streets in months of peaceful protests. In response to the popular uprising, however, Beijing’s National People’s Congress (NPC) passed a law in May that allows for the arrest – and sentences of at least ten years in prison – of individuals found guilty in Hong Kong of four crimes: “secession,” “terrorism,” incitement to foreign interference, or “subversion of state power.”

Critics, like Wong, say that imposing laws passed by Beijing is a violation of “One Country, Two Systems;” Communist Party lawmakers claim a “national security” exception to the law. Many of these critics have been charged under the law, effectively criminalizing all dissent.

Wong and fellow Demosisto veterans Agnes Chow and Ivan Lam pled guilty to a different law, organizing “unauthorized assembly,” on Monday. All three now face five years in prison and have been remanded in custody.

Posts on Wong’s Twitter account on Tuesday – which now reads “* CURRENTLY IN JAIL, ACCOUNT MANAGED BY FRIENDS *” – stated that police had placed Wong in solitary confinement that day and that his cell had lights on 24 hours a day, which distorts a person’s circadian rhythm and prevents sleep.

Police reportedly put Wong in solitary confinement, with no access to outdoor recess or any other part of the prison housing him, after doctors claimed that an unknown foreign object was found in his stomach through an X-ray. Authorities reportedly did not clarify to Wong or his legal team what suspicions police had about this object or allowed them to see the X-ray to help find an explanation. According to Wong’s team on social media, the investigation into the X-ray will take three to five days, in which Wong will not be allowed outside of his solitary cell except for times in which he has visitors.

Jeffrey Ngo, another member of the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement, said on Tuesday that police had given Wong a mask to wear to protect from the Chinese coronavirus, but no option to help dim lights for sleep or a blindfold.

“The correctional officers have left him with an impossible choice between sleeping and protecting himself from Covid-19 [Chinese coronavirus],” Ngo wrote, calling the move a “human rights violation.”

Wong’s Twitter account is soliciting letters from the public to Wong, Chow, and Lam to keep them company while then are imprisoned.

Human rights activists and international lawyers almost universally consider sleep deprivation a form of torture. The United Nations has condemned its use as an “enhanced interrogation” technique during wartime.

Wong has been repeatedly arrested for years in response to his advocacy for human rights and liberties in the city. The Demosisto group chose to disband in light of the passage of the Beijing “national security” law to protect its members, some of which have since fled Hong Kong. Wong himself warned this summer that he had noticed strangers, presumably plain-clothed officers, stalking him in public after the law passed.

The Chinese government has celebrated Wong’s arrest. The Foreign Ministry, in response to questions Monday regarding his guilty plea, insisted that his case was not a “diplomatic problem” despite the global outcry for his release. The state-run Global Times propaganda outlet has more vocally applauded his arrest.

A Chinese “expert” speaking to the newspaper, identified as Tang Fei, told the Global Times that Wong’s guilty plea as a “political performance” to garner international attention.

“When they are unable to make trouble, they hope to attract political attention again by going to prison,” Tang said, “It is more like a halo for these people, accumulating political capital for their subsequent elections.”

Another alleged expert ominously asserted that “it is not enough to prosecute and convict” pro-democracy voices in Hong Kong, without elaborating regarding what other options he hoped to see implemented.

Dissident statements from the Communist Party’s ideology are strictly banned in China, unlike Hong Kong, where the local constitution, the Basic Law, allows for freedom of speech. Dictator Xi Jinping’s regime regularly imprisons and torture both overtly political dissidents and those who defy the government by practicing illegal religions. China also severely persecutes defense attorneys who dare to take on the cases of those imprisoned, making due process impossible.

Despite the controversy over the widespread arrests this year of peaceful dissidents, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam praised her own administration on Wednesday in her annual “Policy Address” to the city, ensuring to specifically applaud the passage of the Chinese “national security” law for its alleged role in helping keep the peace in the city. While the vast majority of protesters taking the streets of Hong Kong for over the year have been peaceful, Hong Kong’s police force has responded with violent beatings and the use of tear gas and rubber bullets. Pro-China, gang-related mobs have also descended upon otherwise peaceful protests and beaten both protesters and bystanders caught in the chaos.

Lam called the “national security” law “remarkably effective” and claimed, despite widespread criticism of them, that the police force is “highly trusted by the public,” according to Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK).

“Advocacies of ‘Hong Kong independence’ and collusions with external forces have progressively subsided; some of the prominent figures have kept a low profile; radical organizations have ceased operation or dissolved; those who are suspected of violating the law have absconded; and street violence is significantly on the decline,” Lam beamed.

Under the “national security” law, any public statement that can be interpreted as an opinion in favor of the independence of Hong Kong from the Chinese Communist Party is punishable by a minimum of ten years in prison, including waving flags that have become iconic in the protests with slogans such as “liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times.”

“After a year of social unrest with fear for personal safety, Hong Kong people can once again enjoy their basic rights and freedoms according to the law,” Lam asserted.

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