HONG KONG – The Hong Kongers are fighting a fierce battle against the government’s proposed legislation that would allow extraditions to mainland China, sparking fears that civil liberties in the semi-autonomous region and its judicial system are being compromised.
However, the governments of Hong Kong and China have tried to allay the fears but stressed their intent of going ahead with the bill with its critics alleging that it goes against the “one country, two systems” formula that promised the territory a greater autonomy when former British colony was returned to China in 1997.
Why is the bill being proposed now?
The proposed amendments to the Fugitive Offenders ordinance and Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Legislation responds to an incident that took place in early 2018 in Taiwan – a country with which Hong Kong does not have a formal transfer agreement.
In February of that year, a 19-year Hong Kong resident and his 20-year-old pregnant girlfriend traveled to Taiwan for a holiday. The boy killed his partner and returned to Hong Kong. He could not be extradited as there was no extradition agreement.
According to Hong Kong, the proposed amendment intends to cover such types of legal voids.
The history of extradition requests An extradition ordinance was promulgated in 1889 that allowed for the surrender of Chinese subjects in Hong Kong wanted as criminals in the Chinese empire.
The said ordinance gave an effect to an article in the 1858 Treaty of Tianjin that was imposed on China by foreign powers during the Second Opium War. But the imperial authorities stopped using it with the passage of time because they thought the 1858 treaty imposed by Western powers was humiliating.
The current extradition law does not allow transfer of suspects between Hong Kong and mainland China, Taiwan and Macao.
Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam said the bill was about putting in place a special surrender arrangement on case-to-case basis “with all the other jurisdictions that Hong Kong has not yet had a long-term arrangement.”
“There must be over 170 other jurisdictions that we have no (workable) legal basis to entertain a request for the return of a fugitive offender,” Lam said, adding that “nobody wants Hong Kong to be a fugitive offenders’ haven.”
Hong Kong maintains that its proposal does not have a specific objective to facilitate extraditions to mainland China.
Who supports the law and who are opposed to it?
A wide social spectrum opposes the law strongly as shown in the massive demonstration on Sunday on the streets of Hong Kong. The demonstration was attended by more than a million people, according to the organizers.
Although the police estimated that some 250,000 people were present in the event, there is no doubt that the march was one of the largest since 2003, when around half a million people demonstrated against a proposed sedition bill and were able to stop its proceedings.
Lawyers, students, workers from all the sectors, businesspersons, journalists and activist were out on the streets on Sunday during the protest.
Their presence showed that even if the fight to extend liberties seemed to have failed, those defending existing rights continue to be strong.
According to China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “more than 800,000 Hong Kongers participated in the activities supporting the amendment” of the two ordinances. China as well as Hong Kong authorities want to go ahead with the process.
What assurances are offered by the proposed bill?
Albert Chen, a Hong Kong University professor and member of Basic Law Committee, said the city has introduced a series of safeguards for politically sensitive cases.
“The central government will probably exercise great restraint in requesting or not requesting rendition in people involved in politically sensitive cases,” Chen said.
“Under these provisions, I think that there is little doubt that people involved in the June 4 events in 1989 (Tiananmen Square protests) would receive the protection of these provisions and would not be extradited even if a request is made by the central government,” he said.
In theory, local courts would handle cases individually and could use veto powers to block extraditions, and the Hong Kong executive says the text aims to cover a legal vacuum.
What is feared?
Man-kei Tam, Director, Amnesty International Hong Kong, is of the view that the proposed changes would put at risk anyone’s liberties in Hong Kong.
He said human rights defenders, journalists, NGO and social workers were at risk “even if the person was outside the mainland when the ostensible crime was committed.”
Lawmaker Dennis Kwok from Hong Kong Bar Association told EFE that the government had not responded to concerns about the significant differences between judicial and criminal justice systems practiced in Hong Kong and mainland China in terms of protection of fundamental human rights.
According to lawyers, the rate of punishments in Chinese courts reaches 99 percent in a country where arbitrary detentions, torture and denial to legal representation by the choice of accused is frequent.
What power does China have over Hong Kong?
On July 1, 1997, Britain handed over Hong Kong’s sovereignty to Beijing, which committed to maintain a series of liberties that the people of Hong Kong already had until its integration into China in 2047.
The “one country, two systems” principle has allowed Hong Kong to enjoy freedom of expression, of assembly, free press, internet without censorship and a secured judicial system.
However, Beijing influence over Hong Kong seems to be increasing progressively.