Lawyer urges NZ court to block extradition of murder suspect to China

WELLINGTON (Reuters) - A lawyer for a man facing extradition to China on murder charges told New Zealand’s High Court on Monday that the government in Wellington could not rely on assurances from China that the man would not be tortured or receive the death penalty.

The challenge against New Zealand’s first extradition to China is the second blow in a week to the Asian giant’s attempts to seize criminal suspects who have fled abroad, including corrupt officials and business executives it is chasing under “Operation Fox Hunt”.

Australia canceled a vote last week to ratify an extradition treaty with China, 10 years after it was signed, after losing opposition support just days after Premier Li Kequiang made a state visit.

Political opposition to extradition in New Zealand and Australia stems from concerns over China’s human rights record, with rights groups regularly accusing Beijing of obtaining confessions through torture or under duress.

“We might have assurances that someone’s not going to be put to death, but can (Justice Minister Amy Adams) really believe those assurances when there’s evidence that people disappear,” said Tony Ellis, a lawyer acting for the man facing extradition, South Korean-born New Zealand resident Kyung Yup Kim.

“They (Chinese courts) are not judicially independent and we must fight against this to preserve our system,” he said.

China’s Foreign Ministry, which was closed for a public holiday, did not respond immediately to a request for comment.

New Zealand agreed in December 2015 to extradite Kim to Shanghai on murder charges after the body of a 20-year-old woman, who had been strangled to death, was found in a Shanghai field in 2009.

Kim had been held in New Zealand custody since 2011. He was released on bail last year and has been living with family members in Auckland.

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s administration has tightened control over almost every aspect of civil society since 2012, citing the need to buttress national security and stability.

During that time, China has detained or questioned hundreds of human rights lawyers and other government critics, international rights groups have said.

Human rights advocates have also been alarmed by the case of a Chinese academic with Australian residency who was released from a week-long detention in Guangzhou on Sunday. The man, Feng Chongyi, had been detained at the airport while attempting to fly back to his home in Sydney. [L3N1HA03H]

Feng said he was subjected to daily interrogations after conducting interviews for a project on Chinese human rights lawyers and their political aspirations.

Reporting By Charlotte Greenfield; Editing by Jane Wardell and Paul Tait