Hong Kong protests: Why are people fighting hard against amendments to the extradition law?

Hong Kong protests: Why are people fighting hard against amendments to the extradition law?

Protests in Hong Kong over the Extradition Bill turned violent yesterday (12 June) as police fired tear gas, rubber bullets, and rounds of beanbags at protesters outside Hong Kong’s legislature. South China Morning Post (SCMP) reported the police chief Stephen Lo Wai-ching saying that the officers on the ground responded to the “riot” when the protesters stormed police lines.

The situation on day-three of the protest was reminiscent of the 79-day Occupy protest in 2014, which was the last time tear gas was used in Hong Kong on protesters. Tear gas was reportedly deployed on Wednesday, 12 June a little after 3:30pm to disperse protesters in Tim Wa Avenue, Tim Mei Avenue, Lung Wo Road and Harcourt Road.

Reports also say that protesters came prepared with masks and other protective gear as well as sharpened metal bars, leading some to suggest that the protesters had intended for the situation to escalate. Others counter that people in Hong Kong have merely learned from past experience.

The pan-democratic bloc of the Legislative Council has issued a condemnation of Carrie Lam Chen Yuet-ngor, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive as well as the police for “clamping down on a largely peaceful protest with excessive force”.

Hong Kong with over a million people on the street in protest. (Image by Paul Wong / Shutterstock.com)

SCMP quoted Democrat Andrew Wan Siu-kin describing how he and two other lawmakers were sprayed with at least three rounds of pepper spray solution when they tried to intervene in clashes between protesters and the police to break them up.

“The government and the police have gone crazy. How much more blood does Carrie Lam want before she can finally agree to call the bill off?” Wan said.

On the flip side, Hong Kong’s delegate to China Tam Yiu-chung said that the police were left with no choice but to resort to violence in order keep the situation under control.

“There are so many protesters. They set up barricades and provoked police with umbrellas,” he said. “They are not just holding silent protests. They are agitated.”

Tam added that the police did give warnings when firing and the authorities were injured in the scuffle as well.

He continued, “I surely don’t want to see things develop like this. I hope protesters can control themselves.”

Echoing the sentiment, lawyer Ronny Tong Ka-wah who is a member of the Executive Council, said he doesn’t think the police’s methods of handling the protest is a major issue.

“It is their responsibility to maintain order,” he said.

He noted that injuries are unavoidable in big protests but he hopes that both sides – protesters and police – can be restrained.

What is the extradition bill?

Over a million protesters – some reports say over a million – have taken to the streets of Hong Kong since Sunday to voice their opposition to the Extradition Bill which they fear would greatly impact the city’s autonomy from China. But what is the bill and why are people so upset about it?

In February, amendments were proposed to Hong Kong’s extradition laws. In April, these amendments were formally introduced in the city’s Legislative Council. It seeks to update the existing laws, specifically the Fugitive Offenders Ordinance and the Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Ordinance.

Currently, Hong Kong has extradition agreements with about 20 countries to hand over people wanted for certain crimes – this include jurisdictions that China doesn’t have an agreement with. They also provide legal assistance to 32 other countries.

The Fugitive Ordinance, which passed just after Hong Kong was handed over to China by the British in 1997, states that it doesn’t apply for extradition and legal assistance to China. Also, Hong Kong doesn’t have to consult with the central Chinese government on requests from other countries.

The proposed amendments to Hong Kong’s extradition law seeks to allow extradition on a case-by-case basis with countries that are not covered by mutual agreements, including China. This would allow fugitives to be sent to China which experts say could potentially expose critics of the mainland to politically motivated prosecutions. Critics have described this as ‘legal kidnapping’. This has been the biggest point of contention with the proposal.

The crowd protest before and after police releases tear gas. (Image by Lewis Tse Pui Lung / Shutterstock.com)

Hong Kong officials maintain that these amendments are necessary to prevent the city from becoming a haven for criminals. This was spurred also by a recent murder case where a 20-year old Hong Kong resident admitted to killing his girlfriend in Taiwan. Authorities in the city have him in custody but he has not faced trial for the murder as Hong Kong doesn’t have jurisdiction over crimes committed in Taiwan. And as current laws stand, he cannot be extradited to Taiwan either.

The Executive Council’s proposed amendments would, as they claim, close such loopholes in Hong Kong’s system. The American Chamber of Commerce, however, have pointed out Hong Kong’s reputation as being a relatively low-crime area.

Taiwan has come forward to say that they will not be seeking extradition if Hong Kong passes the legislation, saying that it doesn’t want it’s request for legal assistance mired in politics. Taiwan has also refused any extradition arrangements with Hong Kong under any ordinance that would imply Taiwan as being part of China – which might be interpreted in the proposed amendments.

What offences are covered under extradition?

At the moment, Hong Kong lays out 46 categories of crime that are liable for extradition from Hong Kong including murder, corruption, kidnapping, and financial crimes.

The proposed legislation removed nine types of commercial crimes such as bankruptcy, and securities and futures trading. This was done after the city’s business sector lobbied heavily for it, arguing that the inclusion of these crimes would drive away potential global businesses.

For a request of extradition to be granted under the proposed law, several conditions have to be met as assessed by Hong Kong’s Department of Justice. These conditions include:

  1. The crime is one of the 37 listed categories
  2. It is punishable by seven or more years in prison
  3. It is a crime in both Hong Kong and the requesting jurisdiction
  4. The offence is not for a political character
  5. And the offence is not punishable by death

If the conditions are met, then the city’s Chief Executive will decide there to proceed with the extradition request. What follows is a long process during which the suspect is able to appeal in Hong Kong’s highest court, legal proceedings to decide on whether the extradition request is politically motivated. The process could take years.

Major concerns

The main concerns that people in Hong Kong have is that the law poses a real threat to the cities judicial and legal independence from China which is enshrined in the “One Country, Two Systems” model which was put in place when the British relinquished control of Hong Kong to the Chinese government.

Protesters rallying against extradition bill in Hong Kong. (Image by May James / Shutterstock.com)

In recent years, the Chinese government has tightened its grip on the relatively vocal and free city of Hong Kong. Quartz notes that this is evident in the outlawing of a pro-independence political party, the de factor expulsion of a Financial Times journalist, the imprisonment of key leaders in the 2014 pro-democracy Umbrella Movement, and the attempt to enact a law that criminalises disrespecting the national anthem.

On top of that, there is a distrust of China’s poor human rights record and opaque legal system. China is no stranger to arbitrary detentions, forced confessions, political prosecutions, the use of torture, and the denial of a fair trial. Hong Kong fears that the extradition bill will further erode its freedoms, leaving at the mercy of brutal Chinese processes.

Lawyers have highlighted that the proposed law lacks sufficient safe-guards to ensure that the law isn’t misused. One example given is that the onus is placed on the suspect to prove that the extradition is politically motivated, not the other way around.

The Hong Kong Bar Association has also pointed out that the Hong Kong courts are not empowered to ensure that the suspect would receive basic human rights protection after they are extradited.

Barrister and convenor of the Progressive Lawyers Group says, “The court cannot protect the defendant and the defendant cannot protect themselves. So who can protect the defendant?”

Finally, the final decision on extradition requests lies in the hand of the Chief Executive. Critics are also concerned that the city’s leader could be easily swayed by China given that the position is effectively appointed by the mainland government.

A second reading of the bill was due to take place on Wednesday but the Legislative Council has postponed the meeting amidst rising tension on the streets. On Monday (10 June), the Hong Kong government had vowed to push forward with the bill and have it enacted by July even as millions of protesters took to the street calling for it to be scrapped.

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