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Prison pen pals

Shiu Ka-Chu
Former pro-democracy lawmaker Shiu Ka-Chu looks at letters written by members of the public for prisoners who were jailed for taking part in last year’s protests, at his then office in the Legislative Council in Hong Kong. When Hong Kong protester Hei saw fellow activists sent behind bars for taking part in last year's democracy protests, she was determined to keep the pro-democracy message alive for her jailed comrades -- by writing them letters. Anthony WALLACE / AFP

– Hong Kongers keep in touch with jailed protesters

HONG KONG, Dec 1, 2020 (AFP) – When Hong Kong protester Hei saw fellow activists put behind bars for taking part in last year’s democracy protests, she was determined to keep the flame burning by writing them letters.

Thousands have been arrested and held in custody for a range of offences during the huge and sometimes violent protests that convulsed the financial hub last year.

The city’s prison system strictly controls inmate access to information about life outside, so Hei decided to keep them up to date on the democracy movement by putting pen to paper. Her mailing list now has almost 60 people on it.

“It’s a relationship between comrades-in-arms and we have trust in each other,” the 22-year-old told AFP, asking to use just one name to protect her identity.

“We share the same pain. I hope letter-writing can strengthen people’s confidence in the movement.”

As well as writing handwritten letters, Hei puts together a DIY newspaper called “Pass the Day”, which includes a summary of headlines, social media posts and political memes from online forums popular with protesters.

She also pays visits to activists, bringing books, snacks and daily necessities. Her friends jokingly refer to her as being “half jailed” by her commitment.

Of the more than 10,000 people arrested during protests since June 2019, more than 2,300 of those cases have proceeded to prosecution, according to authorities.

Hundreds are either held on remand ahead of their trials or are serving post-conviction sentences.

– Letters like ‘candlelight’ –

One of those jailed was 43-year-old Max, convicted of arson for throwing a book on a barricade bonfire lit by protesters.

During the four months he spent in prison, Max likened the letters to “nutrients” and recalled that he would like to reply to them immediately, while they were still “fresh and hot”.

“When I was inside, it was like walking in a tunnel and I couldn’t see any light,” he recalled, speaking on condition that only his first name be used.

“These letters were like candlelight showing me the way to the other end.”

Compared to permitted twice-monthly, half-hour visits, the letters were “the kind of support one can hold on to”.

Without a proper desk and chair, he would spend hours writing letters on his cell bed, burning through three pens per month.

Prison regulations allow convicted inmates to send one free letter a week. Those wanting to send more must earn money for stamps through work. Incoming letters — as well as books — are also screened.

Since his release, Max continues to write to inmates and activists who are still in jail.

“I don’t have much expectation on how these letters could extend the movement, but I do hope comrades can live a good life inside and find some mental support,” he said.

– ‘Not alone’ –

The letter-writing campaign has been championed by former lawmaker Shiu Ka-Chun.

Since January, more than 5,000 letters from the public have been sent and 500 pen pals have been paired up.

“This is the beauty of this movement. People find their own positions and roles to show support,” Shiu told AFP.

Aside from writing letters, Shiu was also involved in campaigns to help inmates send flowers to their loved ones outside and arrange learning materials for younger inmates.

“I hope more people can continue to write to our friends in custody and let them know they are not alone,” he said.

Jennifer, a 30-year-old office worker, described the crushing of the democracy movement as “really dark” and says she feels frustrated that much peaceful dissent has been outlawed.

She has written 48 letters so far to prisoners, something she says helps her process her own feelings as well as providing comfort to her pen pals.

“Sometimes I cried as I wrote these letters,” she said, asking just to use her first name.

“Physically, I’m free, but mentally we are all living in a prison.” yz/je/jta/reb/jah Agence France-Presse