Dozens of Hong Kong rights groups and former protesters who fled the city amid a crackdown on dissent by China have called on Washington to extend a deportation deadline to prevent them from being sent home.
More than 50 advocacy and human rights groups penned an open letter to President Joe Biden, calling on his administration to extend a deadline preventing their deportation beyond its current date of Feb. 5.
"The political instability in Hong Kong shows no sign of slowing down," the letter said. "Defendants are held in pre-trial detention, presided over by government-handpicked judges appointed to special courts without juries. All this comes on top of the miscellaneous protest-related charges leveled against Hong Kongers since 2019."
It said 1,283 political prisoners are currently serving jail sentences in Hong Kong, while far more have been arrested and are awaiting prosecution.
The letter, a copy of which was published on the website of the Hong Kong Democracy Council, described the current Deferred Enforced Departure policy as protecting Hong Kongers in exile who remain "in dire need of a safe haven," and called for its renewal for a further 18 months.
The letter -- signed by groups in New York, California, Boston, Arizona, Chicago and across the United States -- also called on the administration to take steps to assist the passage of legislation further protecting Hong Kongers in the United States.
‘Middle-aged guys following me’
Former protester Maggie Lam said she fears the police could have evidence of her volunteering at a democratic primary in 2020, which prompted the government to postpone a general election, rewrite the rules to bar pro-democracy candidates from running and to prosecute 47 former lawmakers and activists for "subversion" under a draconian national security law.
"I noticed after a while that there were some strange, middle-aged guys following me, and taking photos of me in a very obvious manner," Lam told Radio Free Asia. "I worked in a counseling clinic, and they would be waiting for me in the lobby of the building."
"So even protesters like me, who weren't very well known, would be harassed in this way."
Lam fled Hong Kong in July 2021, arriving in the United States on a tourist visa. Thanks to the Deferred Enforced Departure policy, she has been there ever since.
"Not everyone from Hong Kong is able to apply for political asylum, because a lot of them deliberately didn't keep any evidence that they had taken part in the protest movement, because it was anonymous," she said.
Anna Kwok, executive director of the Hong Kong Democracy Council, said there are likely several thousand Hong Kongers in the United States who took part in the 2019 protests, which Beijing has described as an attempt by "hostile foreign forces" to foment a "color revolution" in the city.
"If anyone who took part in earlier demonstrations goes back to Hong Kong, they could face political prosecution, so they are hoping to stay longer in the United States," Kwok said. "This will give them a bit of time to apply for political refugee status or to decide what other direction to take and the next steps they should take."
"Many of them have already had their ID card numbers recorded by the Hong Kong police," she said. "The Delayed Enforced Departure policy is providing Hong Kongers with a temporary safe-haven for now."
Kwok also called for more permanent measures by the U.S. government to protect Hong Kongers who have fled the city.
Meanwhile, Paris-based press freedom group Reporters Without Borders called for the release of Hong Kong TV journalist Tang Cheuk-yu, who was sentenced on Dec. 22 to 15 months' imprisonment for possession of allegedly "offensive weapons" while covering the November 2019 siege of the Polytechnic University for Taiwan’s Public Television Service.
Tang was first arrested on 18 November 2019 for "unauthorized assembly" and carrying a multipurpose knife and a laser pen while covering the days-long face-off between besieged protesters armed with petrol bombs, bows and arrows and makeshift catapults, and riot police in armored cars with water cannon, rubber bullets and tear gas.
"Carrying tools like a multipurpose knife isn’t unusual for reporters while in the field, and sentencing a journalist for possession of so-called ‘offensive weapons’ is clearly an attempt to punish him for doing his work," the group's East Asia bureau chief Cédric Alviani said.
He called for the release of Tang and "all other journalists and press freedom defenders detained in the territory."
Hong Kong, once a bastion of press freedom, has plummeted from 80th place in 2021 to 148th place in the 2022 RSF World Press Freedom Index, marking the index’s sharpest drop of the year. China itself ranks 175th of the 180 countries and territories evaluated, the group said.
Translated by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Malcolm Foster
This content originally appeared on Radio Free Asia and was authored by By Chen Zifei for RFA Mandarin.