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The consensus among human rights groups is that many of the arrests and charges laid against Hong Kong protesters have been unjustified, but Canadian immigration officials have warned Ottawa that is not always the case.Kin Cheung/The Associated Press

Canadian immigration officials warned the federal government in an internal memo last year against assuming protest-related charges faced by Hong Kongers seeking entry to Canada are bogus accusations fabricated by the city’s Beijing-backed authorities.

This internal caution, which was provided to The Globe and Mail, is different from the Canadian government’s public messaging on the crackdown on the former British colony. Ottawa routinely says it stands “shoulder to shoulder with the people of Hong Kong.” The consensus among human rights groups is that many of the arrests and charges laid against Hong Kong protesters have been unjustified.

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The warning for Ottawa is contained in a June, 2020, report from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada’s Hong Kong office. The report is headlined “Inadmissibility Risks.”

In the report, the Hong Kong office advises Ottawa not to consider Hong Kongers innocent if they apply for visas or asylum but have protest-related charges. “It cannot be assumed that charges are politicized or trumped up by authorities; there have been shocking images of violent attacks during confrontations,” the report says.

The report was written one year after pro-democracy and anti-China protests began in Hong Kong and about one week before a draconian new security law, since used to quash political dissent, was imposed there by Beijing.

The Canadian government recently unveiled a program to help young Hong Kongers work, study and establish permanent residency here – an initiative sold as an effort to help them escape the clampdown in their home city.

Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino’s office, asked for comment, said the government does not believe Hong Kongers facing charges related to protests are criminals seeking to flee justice and does not assume any charges they face are justified.

“We will not speculate on any case, but rather evaluate each one very carefully on its facts and merits,” Alexander Cohen, press secretary to Mr. Mendicino, said.

“We strongly reaffirm that no person will be disqualified from the Hong Kong immigration pathway, nor any other pathway, by virtue alone of having been charged or convicted for participating in peaceful protests.”

Hong Kong’s demonstrations lasted into 2020 before they were curbed by the COVID-19 pandemic. The city’s public unrest began after efforts by Beijing-backed lawmakers to legislate extradition to the Chinese mainland. The protests have since evolved into expressions of broader civic dissent.

In the internal report, the immigration unit at the Canadian consulate in Hong Kong predicts that “those fearing prosecution for their involvement in protests may seek refuge in easily accessible foreign countries.”

The Canadian government is warned that it should expect to see more protest-related criminal convictions in the files of Hong Kongers who apply to work, study or move to Canada.

The report notes that about 9,000 Hong Kongers were arrested between June 9, 2019, and May 29, 2020, with 1,547 awaiting trial. It says that those arrested could face charges such as unlawful assembly, rioting, arson and possession of weapons.

China’s envoy to Canada likewise warned against granting entry to protesters last fall. “We strongly urge the Canadian side not to grant so-called political asylum to those violent criminals in Hong Kong, because it is interference in China’s domestic affairs, and certainly it will embolden those violent criminals,” ambassador Cong Peiwu said at the time.

Richard Kurland, a Vancouver-based immigration lawyer who obtained the internal report under access-to-information law and provided it to The Globe, called its recommendations seriously concerning.

“This is disturbing, because Canada may not be able to distinguish between authentic human rights demonstrators and petty destructive criminals,” Mr. Kurland said.

Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch, said she would like to give the report’s authors a lesson on Hong Kong’s Public Order Ordinance, a law that she said places excessive restrictions on rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly and was used to arrest and charge many demonstrators unjustly. “If the Canadian government’s position is that anybody from Hong Kong who’s been accused of unlawful assembly should automatically be locked out of consideration, that’s a real problem because a lot of those charges are indeed bogus,” Ms. Richardson said.

“If they are going to bring this level of scrutiny to people who may have participated in protests, I certainly hope they are also going to bring scrutiny to bear on people from the Hong Kong police force who may want to emigrate to Canada.”

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch documented arbitrary arrests, brutal beatings and torture by Hong Kong police after mass protests began in mid-2019. Authorities have refused to allow independent investigations of alleged abuse, targeted journalists covering the demonstrations, detained first aid providers trying to help the injured, and not condemned Chinese soldiers’ brief but unauthorized appearance on the streets of Hong Kong.

The internal report also warns that “Hong Kong remains a link in global criminal networks that funnel dirty money and drugs to and from Canada.”

About 300,000 Canadian citizens live in Hong Kong.

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