Hong Kong police seeking to ban a pro-independence party began keeping a close eye on it soon after it was set up in 2016, the Post has learned, as more groups on Thursday voiced their objections to the crackdown.

A liberal lawyers’ advocacy group said it was “deeply concerned” about the action being considered against the Hong Kong National Party (HKNP) on national security grounds, when it had not resorted to force or violence.

In a statement, the Progressive Lawyers Group urged the city’s security minister to respect the principle of freedom of association as a fundamental right when deciding the party’s fate. The HKNP has until August 7 to make its case as to why it should not be banned.

Under the Johannesburg Principles, considered an international standard, no restriction of rights would be legitimate unless it was to “protect a country’s existence or its territorial integrity against the use or threat of force”, the group argued.

Police have said the party’s propaganda, street booths and founder Andy Chan Ho-tin’s pledge to achieve independence from China by “whatever effective means” amounted to “concrete steps” and posed an “imminent threat” to national security, even without violence.

The lawyers’ group questioned banning a political party based on its agenda. Previous rulings by the European Court of Human Rights, the group said, had affirmed that calls for secession do not constitute sufficient grounds to dissolve a party.

An exception was a political party in Spain that was previously linked to a terrorist group.

Amid the debate, the Post found that police began monitoring the HKNP, established in March 2016, more than 1½ years ago, before deciding to seek the ban.

They screen-captured at least 11 images or text messages posted on the party’s social media platforms in 2016, as catalogued in an 800-page document sent to Chan on Tuesday.

The images included pictures of the party’s street booths across the city, and of Chan attending forums in Japan and Taiwan from April to December 2016. One of the images was captured just 14 hours after an HKNP post on Facebook marking its six-month anniversary on the night of October 17, 2016.

The lawyers’ group speaking out in Chan’s support was among some 50 civil organisations and political parties that issued a joint statement on Thursday condemning the proposed ban, which they said threatened freedom of association.

People Power’s Tam Tak-chi, one of signatories, argued that Chan had merely spoken about independence and could carry on holding his views even if his party was shut down.

“How can the government deal with him then? How can it restrict the freedom of speech of an individual?” Tam said.

The groups, together with other pro-democracy parties, planned to join a protest march organised by the Civil Human Rights Front on Saturday, followed by a rally outside police headquarters in Wan Chai.

Ronny Tong Ka-wah, an adviser to Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, rejected the argument that only the use of force would merit action against the HKNP, noting that the Societies Ordinance was designed to prevent groups from mobilising for violence.

“Common sense tells us if we wait and see if they do take [violent] action that would already be too late,” Tong wrote on Facebook. “So the law is always against what a group will do, not what it has done.”

Defending the crackdown, a government source earlier argued that freedom of speech was not an absolute right. “[Verbal] sexual harassment and claiming to be a triad member are both considered criminal offences, even though they are just speech,” the source said. “We would have to leave it to the court to judge whether the police have indeed adopted a ‘loose threshold’, as suggested by some.”

On Thursday, the police declined to comment further.

Article originally appeared in South China Morning Post on 19th July 2018.