After years fighting for the ‘little guy’, Hong Kong crackdown forces UK lawyer to flee

Show caption Michael Vidler, a human rights lawyer, has left Hong Kong. Photograph: Anthony Wallace/AFP/Getty Images Hong Kong After years fighting for the ‘little guy’, Hong Kong crackdown forces UK lawyer to flee Assailed by a hostile press, police and judiciary, Michael Vidler left the city with pride at having tried to improve the lives of ordinary people Almond Li, Hong Kong Free Press Thu 2 Jun 2022 11.00 BST Share on Facebook

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Michael Vidler has built his legal career on fighting for the “little guy” in Hong Kong, from high-profile street protesters such as Joshua Wong to little-known LGBT activists.

But not any more. After 30 years in the city, the 58-year-old human rights lawyer has been forced to flee back to Britain because of concerns about the Beijing-drafted national security law and “unfounded allegations” from the increasingly bellicose state-controlled press.

“I lived here for 30 years. This has been my home. Hong Kong was my home … This isn’t how I expected to end my firm or my time in Hong Kong,” Vidler told HKFP after a hasty exit to the UK in late April.

Vidler’s untimely departure came amid a sweeping crackdown that has seen hundreds of activists arrested under the security law or other legislation and more than 60 civil society groups disbanded. Several news outlets have shuttered and most opposition politicians are behind bars or in self-exile.

His departure came weeks after two British judges resigned from the city’s highest court, citing security law concerns, and less than two months after Paul Harris, the former chief of the Bar Association, also British, left after being summoned by police.

Unwelcome farewells

On the day of his trip, Vidler was notified by his staff that someone – allegedly from state-backed media – was waiting for him at his office, so he avoided going back. By the time he got to the airport, “about seven to 10 people from state media were waiting at the check-in counter and descended, taking photos and calling out questions in Chinese”, the lawyer said.

One of those questions was “Are you leaving because you are a traitor?” The grilling continued until he went into the restricted area.

Michael Vidler at Hong Kong airport Photograph: supplied by Michael Vidler

In Hong Kong, concerted front-page campaigns in the Beijing-backed press are often seen as a warning of looming trouble.

“The fact that the state media were waiting for me and also published details of other travel plans for my family indicates that this confidential information was obtained by state actors and passed to the state media so that they could be waiting at the airport and publish the details straight away,” he said, adding that plainclothed immigration officers appeared to watch him board the plane.

National security fears

Speaking to HKFP via video link days after he landed in the UK, Vidler said one of the last straws was when his firm was mentioned by one of the city’s hand-picked national security judges, even though it had no link to the protest case the judge was hearing.

In February, the judge, Stanley Chan, noted that a defendant accused of unlawful assembly, assaulting police and possessing weapons was carrying a card printed with legal assistance contacts, including the Spark Alliance, the Civil Human Rights Front (CHRF) and Vidler & Co.

Chan said in his judgment that the “advice” or “legal guidance” on the card reflected how organised the protest was, though he said he would refrain from stating whether the organisations “were inciters as defined by the court of final appeal, [and] had accessorial or inchoate liability”. He added that he would not comment on whether anyone had committed professional misconduct.

“I saw that as essentially a call to action by the national security police against my firm,” Vidler said. “[The] thought that I could be associated with the crimes to which my clients were accused, merely because my client may have been found with my business card, was just horrific to me. And the fact that this was said by a national security judge was greatly concerning.”

‘Anti-China protest lawyer’

Leaders of the Spark Alliance – which financed protester bail payments – and the now defunct Civil Human Rights Front protest coalition, have been targeted by the police. Under the security law, imposed in June 2020, authorities can handpick judges for closed-door trials, with sentences of up to life in prison. Vidler was also labelled a “protest lawyer” by Beijing-backed media.

After the 2014 Umbrella Movement protests, Vidler represented activist Joshua Wong, and his firm also assisted social worker Ken Tsang in his fight to identify seven police officers who assaulted him during the 79-day street occupations. But Vidler said his firm had never represented “one person at trial accused of actions” during 2019, adding that the characterisations by “Communist party mouthpieces” was “extraordinary”.

Pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong in custody in 2020. He was one of Michael Vidler’s well-known clients. Photograph: Anthony Kwan/Getty Images

Vidler did take on the case of Indonesian journalist Veby Mega Indah, who lost an eye after allegedly being hit by a police projectile while covering the 2019 protests, but Vidler told HKFP last year they no longer represented her. He also represented Ms X, a woman who alleged she had been gang-raped by officers at a police station in September 2019.

Advocacy for access to justice

Vidler – who began his career at the London firm Duthie Hart & Duthie – leaves a legacy of advocating for equality for minorities and the underprivileged. He served on the board of directors of both Hong Kong Unison and the Hong Kong Refugee Advice Centre.

“I set up my firm with a specific focus to give voice to the ‘little guy,’ to give people rights, [to give] an ordinary person in Hong Kong access to justice,” he told HKFP.

One of the underdogs he represented was Billy Leung, a gay man who arguably sparked the lawyer’s engagement in fighting for LGBT rights in the early 2000s.

In 2004, Leung and Vidler successfully challenged a law banning those under the age of 21 from engaging in anal sex, compared with age 16 for vaginal sex. The court later ruled that the higher age of consent for gay men was discriminatory and thus unconstitutional and invalid.

Vidler said he grew up in a very accepting environment and decided to do something for Hong Kong when he learned of the city’s backwardness in regards to LGBT issues: “[I]t seems to me so egregious – the law, and so discriminatory … It seemed a very important thing to do. And from then on, it just seemed natural.”

The unfinished fight

Having returned to Britain, there are several cases Vidler will not be able to guide through Hong Kong’s slow-moving justice system. Among them, Henry Edward Tse and “Q” – two trans men who have not undergone full sex reassignment surgery but are fighting to change the gender on their identity card.

The case will now be heard at Hong Kong’s highest court with another law firm, though a date has yet to be set.

He was also pessimistic about the judicial system’s ability to protect vulnerable groups, adding that the political environment had “cowed” people from speaking out.

But despite his fears for the future, he left with his head high at how he had helped “to make sure people’s lives were improved. That’s something I am proud of.”

This story was originally published in Hong Kong Free Press