With less than a week to go before the divisive extradition Bill goes through a second reading,the pressure on the Hong Kong government to drop the proposed legislation has mounted, with the city’s lawyers marching on Thursday (June 6) in a silent protest.
Almost 3,000 lawyers, all dressed in black, gathered at the Court of Final Appeal for their silent protest – the fifth and biggest of its kind by the city’s legal community since Hong Kong was handed back to China by Britain in 1997.
At the government headquarters in Admiralty, Mr Dennis Kwok, the lawmaker representing the legal sector, urged the government to withdraw the Bill immediately.
The much debated Bill will allow Hong Kong to hand over fugitives to various jurisdictions, such as Taiwan and, more importantly, mainland China.
On June 12, the government will table the extradition Bill at a full Legislative Council meeting as it seeks a quick passage of the Bill with the backing of pro-establishment lawmakers.
The move follows the government’s decision to further scale back proposed changes floated in February, in a bid to garner the support of an uneasy business community and pro-Beijing lawmakers.
Last Thursday (May 30), the government said it would allow suspects or fugitives to be extradited if their offence is punishable by seven years’ jail instead of three years’ jail, which was already a departure from the one year stated previously.
The government also said that it would accept and process transfer requests made by only the top judicial authorities of other jurisdictions and not those from provincial authorities.
But many in the political, business, legal and media sectors are still worried about a fugitive’s right to a fair trial and fear that the changes will be used by the Chinese mainland authorities for political persecution – something the Hong Kong government has insisted will not happen.
Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam previously explained that the proposal will plug an existing loophole in the law and that the amendments “are intended to pursue judicial justice in criminal cases and also to protect the public” so that Hong Kong is not a safe haven for dangerous fugitives. It is a point that Beijing officials have echoed.
The idea for changes to the extradition Bill was floated after a Hong Kong resident, Chan Tong-kai, confessed to killing his girlfriend in Taiwan last year.
The confession came after Chan returned to Hong Kong, which does not have an extradition agreement with Taiwan.
Instead, he was jailed in Hong Kong in April in connection with money-laundering charges. He can be released in October as he had been remanded in custody since his arrest in March last year.
The tweaked proposed Bill was welcomed by influential local bodies, including the Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce, the Chinese General Chamber of Commerce and the Chinese Manufacturers’ Association of Hong Kong.
Late last month, the deputy commissioner for the Chinese Foreign Ministry office in Hong Kong, Mr Song Ruan, reassured Hong Kongers that they have nothing to fear as China “respects the jurisdiction” of the local government.
In a video interview released on Thursday, the city’s last British governor, Mr Chris Patten, urged the government not to go ahead with the proposed Bill as it is one that will “strike a terrible blow” against the rule of law, Hong Kong’s stability, security and position as a great international trading hub.
“What these proposals do is to remove the firewall between Hong Kong’s rule of law and the idea of law – which prevails in Communist China – an idea of law where there aren’t any independent courts, where the courts and the security services and the party’s rules… are rolled altogether,” Mr Patten said.
On Wednesday, the Law Society urged the government in a lengthy statement not to rush the introduction of the new legislation.
It called for a thorough review of the relevant laws and asked for additional safeguards such as letting a Hong Kong person accused of crime overseas to dispute and resist an extradition request.
Many in the legal profession worry that the judiciary will be put in a difficult position when handling cases pertaining to requests for transfer of fugitives to the mainland.
And opposition to the proposed Bill seems to have grown stronger with another rally planned for Sunday (June 9).
Lawmaker Claudia Mo told The Straits Times that she believes “momentum has certainly been gained in the past week”.
“Just look at the June 4 turnout… a large part of the massive turnout is a result of the very popular fear of the extradition Bill being passed and so the organisers are confident that we will reach (a crowd of) 300,000 and we hope that will prove to be a slap in the face for (Chief Executive) Carrie Lam,” the pro-democracy Legislative Council member said.
On Tuesday, some 180,000 people gathered at Victoria Park to commemorate the Tiananmen Square crackdown on student protesters 30 years ago.
This Sunday’s event, organised by the Civil Human Rights Front, a coalition of pro-democracy groups, will march from Causeway Bay to Admiralty.
The previous march against the Bill was held in late April and saw a turnout of 130,000 – the largest demonstration since the 2014 pro-democracy Umbrella Movement.
Student Amanda Lam, 22, said she missed the previous marches and will attend Sunday’s event.
“I’m joining the coming one because this might be the last time Hongkongers can be united for such a large-scaled protest for our home,” she added.
So far, a dozen protests, timed to coincide with the coalition’s rally, have been planned in cities such as London, New York and Berlin.
Asked how far Sunday’s rally will go in getting the government to bin the extradition Bill, Ms Mo said it is “realistically not hopeful”.
“So, you ask what’s the point in doing this? First of all, we still believe in miracles in politics. The thing is that you never say never. If you fight, you may not get it, but if you don’t, you definitely won’t get it,” she said.