HONG KONG (Reuters) - Hong Kong’s extradition bill, which would cover Hong Kong’s 7.4 million residents as well as foreign and Chinese nationals in the city, would allow criminal suspects to be sent to mainland China for trial in courts controlled by the Communist Party.
Opponents of the bill, which was indefinitely suspended after violent protests, see it as a threat to the rule of law in the former British colony and would put them at the mercy of China’s justice system where human rights are not guaranteed.
Protesters are demanding the bill be completely scrapped.
The Hong Kong government introduced the proposals in February, putting forward sweeping changes that would simplify case-by-case extraditions of criminal suspects to countries beyond the 20 with which Hong Kong has extradition treaties.
It explicitly allows extraditions from Hong Kong to greater China - including the mainland, Taiwan and Macau - for the first time, closing what Hong Kong government officials have repeatedly described as a loophole that they say has allowed the city to become a haven for criminals.
Hong Kong’s leader would initiate and finally approve an extradition following a request from a foreign jurisdiction. A city judge must also approve or reject such a request, though the scope to consider evidence or the “quality of justice” that a fugitive would face once surrendered to the requesting jurisdiction would be limited.
Some legal experts say the government’s description of judges as “gatekeepers” for such extradition requests is misleading. The bill also removes oversight of extradition arrangements by the city’s Legislative Council.
While the bill has been indefinitely suspended, if it became law, it would be possible for mainland Chinese courts to request Hong Kong courts to freeze and confiscate assets related to crimes committed on the mainland, beyond an existing provision covering the proceeds of drug offences.
Opponents of the bill fear being sent for trial to a justice system rights group say is plagued by torture, forced confessions and arbitrary detentions.
Officials initially seized on the murder last year of a Hong Kong woman holidaying in Taiwan to justify the bill. Police say her boyfriend confessed on his return to Hong Kong and he is now in jail on lesser money-laundering charges.
Taiwan authorities have strongly opposed the bill, which they say could leave Taiwan citizens exposed in Hong Kong and have vowed to refuse to take back the murder suspect if the bill were to be passed.
The need for an eventual extradition deal with the mainland, was acknowledged by government officials and experts ahead of Hong Kong’s handover from British to Chinese rule in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” model.
The city maintains a separate and independent legal system as part of the broader freedoms the formula guarantees.
Millions have taken to the streets in recent weeks in the largest and most violent protests to rock the city in decades. The backlash poses the greatest popular challenge to Chinese President Xi Jinping since he took power in 2012.
Concern over the bill spread rapidly to pro-business and pro-Beijing elements usually loath to publicly contradict the Hong Kong or Chinese governments. Hong Kong judges have privately expressed alarm, and mainland commercial lawyers based in Hong Kong have echoed their fears, saying the mainland system cannot be trusted to meet even basic standards of judicial fairness. Schools, lawyers and church groups have joined human rights groups to protest against the bill.
“It’s a proposal, or a set of proposals, which strike a terrible blow ... against the rule of law, against Hong Kong’s stability and security, against Hong Kong’s position as a great international trading hub,” Hong Kong’s last British governor, Chris Patten, said in June.
Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam suspended the bill, saying she had heard the people “loud and clear”, but opponents want it to be withdrawn.
Lam has apologized for the turmoil but refused to say it l would be withdrawn, only that it would not be re-introduced during her time in office, which is due to end in 2022, if public fears persist.
This is the strongest indicator that the government is effectively shelving the legislation.
Reporting by Greg Torode, Anne Marie Roantree, James Pomfret, Jessie Pang; Editing by Robert Birsel