The heavy-handed treatment of anti-monarchy protesters at King Charles III’s ceremony is ominous
We are still reeling from the events of last weekend when a series of protesters were arrested in London. The protesters, from the anti-monarchy group Republic, had liaised with the police in advance and been given the green light for their demonstration. Despite this they were arrested as soon as they turned up, with no reason given. They spent the day in jail.
This overreach by the police is, sadly, part of a broader pattern of peaceful protesters and journalists reporting on these protests being arrested, all of which has been exacerbated by the passage last week of the Public Order Act 2023 – which Index has opposed from the get-go.
Commentators have raised the alarm bell. We’re sleep walking into a dictatorship, some have said. Others have warned of the UK turning into an illiberal democracy, like Hungary. So what lessons can we learn from other places that have seen their rights to protest crumble? We asked a series of people – artists, journalists and activists – to share messages with us here.
‘Akrestsina prison wasn’t born in a day’
I read Julian Assange’s letter to King Charles III from HMP Belmarsh. I recognise the prison he describes. 1,768 political prisoners in Belarus recognise it. Thousands of Belarusians who took to the streets for peaceful protests recognise it. The name of the prison is insignificant. When I tell people in so-called “first-world countries” that I spent nine days in prison for a peaceful demonstration in Belarus, they get shocked. We come to these countries for security and protection, because we believe that the rule of law works there. Who will protect their own citizens from their state?
As I followed the news from Coronation day, I questioned: why is the smoothness of the show more important than an individual’s right for freedom of assembly? Why is it so much more important that a bill is passed to make detentions of the organisers legal. They were detained before the protest even began. I remember police in Minsk in 2020 arresting us as we walked from different parts of the city, trying to gather in one spot. I remember the Belarusian oppositional candidate Uladzimir Niakliayeu being beaten up and arrested on his way to the protesters on the post-election night on 19 December 2010. I don’t remember it but I read about the opponents of Lukashenka disappearing in the 90s…
Do you think I’m dramatising and it won’t happen in the UK? Not to that extent? Akrestsina prison, this torture chamber where 53 women were kept in a cell for eight, listening to the screams of men raped with a baton on the corridor, wasn’t born in a day. It is the Frankenstein of a society which disregarded the detentions and calls of activists. Don’t let Britain become Belarus.
Hanna Komar, poet and activist from Belarus
‘Authoritarian governments are watching closely’
After Hong Kong finally lifted its last pandemic restrictions in March this year, the first protests were authorised in more than three years. Ever since coronavirus arrived in the city in January 2020, the pandemic had been used as a pretext for banning demonstrations, giving rise to absurd situations where it was legal to gather in a restaurant in a group of 12 but illegal to congregate outside in groups of more than four. Protests still happened during that time, particularly in response to the introduction of the National Security Law in June 2020, but once the Hong Kong government raised the fine for violating the four-person assembly rule to HK$5,000 (£500), many people were deterred. Nonetheless, a blind eye was turned to larger groups who turned out to support the government.
When it became legal to protest again, there were a lot of strings attached, often literally. In March protesters against a proposed land reclamation project and waste-processing facility were forced to wear number tags and walk in a cordoned-off line with heavy police presence, while the organisers had to agree not to exceed the permitted 100 participants. Another march, for women’s rights, was cancelled by organisers after police said there was a risk of violence. Former members of the now-disbanded Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions called off a May Day march after one of the organisers was harassed by police.
The right to protest in Hong Kong is now severely circumscribed, to the point that to do so is to invite police attention designed to deter turning out. The National Security Law has also had a chilling effect on people, who might be fearful of losing their job if they take to the streets. The Hong Kong government continues to claim there is freedom of assembly but, like many freedoms in the city these days, it is highly conditional, even hollow.
Tens of thousands of Hongkongers have moved abroad in the past few years, to Taiwan and Singapore, and also to Western countries, including the UK. For many, it is a refuge away from the deteriorating situation back home. But some are also conscious of how things are not perfect in their new adopted countries. The UK’s Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act, with its emphasis on disruption, has aspects that are similar to restrictions back in Hong Kong, while in France, many have been shocked by the brutality of the police in repressing protests against the government’s pension reform law. Unlike in Hong Kong, there is still the possibility of legal recourse against these measures, but Western countries ought to be aware how their repressive tools undermine their own criticism of governments such as China’s and Hong Kong’s. When British police arrest anti-monarchy protesters, authoritarian governments are watching closely, and are only too happy and eager to use this as a justification, however disingenuously, next time they round up protesters on their own turf.
Tammy Lai-Ming Ho, poet from Hong Kong
‘Continue standing up for your voice’
Hungary has a long history of protests. In March 1848, a group of intellectuals kicked off a demonstration against the Habsburg empire, which led to the creation of the dual monarchy after a year-long fight. In 1956, university students sparked a mass protest against the USSR, in which over 2,000 people were killed, but which ultimately resulted in a softer governance. It was a series of protests that led to the toppling of Hungary’s last socialist PM, Ferenc Gyurcsány, too, following the leaking and broadcasting of a profane and controversial speech in 2006. A young right-wing party, Fidesz, organised multiple protests.
Ultimately, these events and Fidesz’s role contributed to the election of party chair Viktor Orbán in 2010. Since then, he has been leading the country into an increasingly anti-democratic future, including cracking down on protesters’ rights.
The country has witnessed plenty of protests since, despite increasingly strict laws and growing retaliation. In the latest, students marched against the restrictions of freedom of teachers. Two events, held one week apart in April and May, were both ended by the police spraying tear gas, in some cases directly in the faces of minors.
The popularity of these protests shows that the Hungarian youth isn’t keen on standing down and giving in to a future without voice, joining youth around the world, be it protesting against monarchy, for pensions or human rights.
Videos of this protest see visibly young people tearing down the metal fence in the Buda Castle, climbing on buildings and chanting the mantra of protests around the world: we won’t allow this.
“This shows that we got under someone’s skin, we started doing something… And maybe we will get even more under their skin,” one young protester said when asked why she persists, by the independent portal Telex.hu. Perhaps this should be a message for all protesters around the world: to continue standing up for your voice and displease those who are trying to take it away.
Lili Rutai, journalist from Hungary