Hong Kong rights lawyer says he fled 'cold winds' of suppression

·4-min read

When he saw the crowd of reporters waiting for him at Hong Kong airport, British human rights lawyer Michael Vidler knew he had been right to close his firm and flee the city.

"Are you afraid of being arrested? Are you afraid of Hong Kong's security law?" journalists from pro-Beijing newspapers shouted as they chased him, cameras pointing at his face.

The events that led Vidler to leave the city he had called home for over three decades with just two days' notice are testament to the withering of Hong Kong's once-vibrant civil society -- and the stifling of dissent brought by the national security law that Beijing imposed in 2020.

Vidler decided to shutter his firm when it was singled out in a national security case in February.

Two months later, when the closure was announced, he was attacked in state-associated media and accused of helping demonstrators who took part in huge pro-democracy protests that engulfed Hong Kong three years ago.

Vidler told AFP he never represented any of the 2019 protesters in court and that he was not contacted by national security police.

But "when I was accused of being an 'anti-China black hand', I had seen how that had worked out for people", he said. "That's why I left."

He is not the first to make that calculation.

The scenes at the airport were almost identical to those in early March when Paul Harris, another British rights lawyer and former chairman of Hong Kong's Bar Association, headed swiftly for a night flight just hours after a long conversation with national security police.

Harris too was labelled "anti-China" and a "favourite lawyer of the black-clad violence" -- a pejorative term for the 2019 demonstrations.

"You only need to have a look at the way rights lawyers have been dealt with in mainland China to know where the wind is blowing and I believe those cold winds have arrived in Hong Kong," Vidler said.

In April he boarded a one-way flight out of the city and his firm, Vidler & Co. Solicitors, officially ceased to operate on Friday.

- No space to operate -

Hong Kong faces scrutiny over whether its legal system can maintain its independence as China cracks down on dissent with the security law.

In March, two of Britain's most senior judges pulled out of sitting on Hong Kong's top court, citing the law's impact on freedoms, though nine other foreign judges said they would stay.

Vidler's decision to shut his practice after 19 years was taken as he felt "it was no longer possible for me to conduct the sort of work that I had set up the firm to do".

The company was known for judicial reviews that skewered government policies on constitutional tests, ranging from human trafficking and sexual violence to LGBTQ rights and country park development.

And some of their 2019 protest cases attracted the authorities' wrath.

They defended Veby Indah, an Indonesian journalist who was shot in her right eye by a police projectile, and represented "Ms X", a woman allegedly raped by officers at a police station.

Chris Tang, then police chief and now Hong Kong's security minister, openly accused Ms X of giving a false statement and put her name on the wanted list.

But Vidler said it was after the security law took effect that the firm's space to operate collapsed, with people no longer willing to come forward, NGOs dissolving or withdrawing, and political opposition largely wiped out.

"Any criticism of the government appears to be described as a national security offence or sedition," Vidler said.

"Hong Kong, I've felt over the last two years, is frankly a place I don't recognise anymore," he added. "Civil society has all but disappeared."

- 'Deeply troubling' -

The last straw for Vidler & Co. came when Stanley Chan, a fiery security judge, named the company six times in a judgement convicting four protesters of unlawful assembly and possession of offensive weapons.

Chan said the firm's phone number was on some "legal assistance resources" cards found on the defendants, and that the cards "reflected a sense of organisation behind the incidents".

"I would not comment whether these individuals, institutions or companies... are involved in accessorial or inchoate liability," Chan wrote.

The "deeply troubling" legal analysis sent a chill down Vidler's spine, who interpreted it as a "call to action for the national security police".

"I thought it was really only a matter of time before I became the subject of an investigation," he said.

When the closure's announcement prompted the press attacks, he decided to leave straight away.

Vidler said he had been overwhelmed by messages of support since he left, including some from former and current members of the city's judiciary.

"I feel conflicted leaving," he said. "But wiser people than me said I made the right decision."

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