Ex-chief of Hong Kong barristers says he left city after police interview

HONG KONG, March 2 (Reuters) - A British human rights lawyer and former head of Hong Kong's Bar Association said he left the city on Tuesday evening, hours after China's state-backed media said he was summoned to a local police station and interviewed by national security police.

The Hong Kong-based Wen Wei Po reported that Paul Harris had been summoned to a police station in the city's Wanchai district, with Harris shown walking into the police station in a video posted on its website.

The report on Wednesday also carried a second video of Harris at Hong Kong International Airport pushing a trolley with suitcases. In the video, Harris was asked by a reporter whether he was afraid of being arrested, but he didn't comment. Reuters could not confirm when either video was filmed.

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Another state-backed newspaper, Ta Kung Pao, said in a separate report on Wednesday that Harris had "fled" Hong Kong after being called in to meet police for an "alleged violation" of the national security law.

Harris confirmed to Reuters in a phone message that he had left the city, but gave no further details.

"Yes, on way to see my mother in England," he said. Harris declined to answer any further questions from Reuters.

Harris stood down in January from the Bar Association, a professional body representing Hong Kong's 1,500 barristers, without seeking re-election.

Harris' year-long term was marked by criticism from Hong Kong and Beijing officials who described him as "anti-China", and repeated attacks in state-backed media.

Harris, a senior counsel, had commented on jail terms for several democracy activists last year and the sweeping national security law that China imposed on the city in June 2020.

Two of Harris' fellow barristers said he had been planning for some time to leave Hong Kong in March, but it was not known for how long.

At the Bar's in-house election in January, Harris was replaced by fellow barrister Victor Dawes.

Some lawyers see Dawes as a pro-establishment selection after several years of strong stances by the association in the former British colony, whose robust legal system helped make it an attractive international financial centre.

Dawes said at the time his team would work to keep the Bar's independence and defend human rights if needed as prosecutions moved through courts under the national security law, which came after months of anti-government protests.

The law expands police powers of search and surveillance and punishes acts of subversion, terrorism, collusion with foreign forces and secession with up to life imprisonment.

Harris had been involved in several cases related to the law.

A Bar Association spokesperson said the group was "ascertaining the situation and has no comment at this stage".

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Reporting By Greg Torode, James Pomfret and Jessie Pang. Editing by Gerry Doyle

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