Huge public protest over the weekend forced the Hong Kong government to delay its proposed extradition bill pending further consultation.
The planned reform has been so controversial that hundreds of thousands of people have lined the streets to demonstrate against a law that would allow extradition to China and the removal of a key tenet of the rule of law.
The delay at the weekend is not the end of the issue. If the bill passes in the future, Hong Kong would legitimise extradition to Beijing and open a Pandora’s box on human rights abuse.
This law will be a retrograde step towards authoritarianism. One of the fundamental tenets of the “one country, two systems” rule is that Hong Kong can decide its own legal issues. One of the most important is that there is no extradition treaty between Hong Kong and China, Taiwan or Macau.
This is because of concerns over the independence of the judicial system in China and the likelihood of Beijing using the extradition process to stymy free speech, employing espionage and treason laws to request the extradition of alleged dissidents.
Extradition is usually a complex international process designed to prevent fugitives from having safe havens. However, it has often been used to reach across borders and attack dissident voices.
Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, has explained that the law is intended to close legal loopholes — but no-one believes that is where it ends.
The legal protection of the Hong Kong judiciary will begin to fade under unrelenting pressure from Beijing and extradition will happen. Otherwise there is no point in signing the treaty in the first place.
There are several parallels. The Minsk Convention between ten former elements of the Soviet Union, including Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan, made extradition between those countries simple and has resulted in some extraordinary behaviour.
Even prior to the annexation of Crimea, Russian special forces were allowed to enter Ukraine and kidnap dissidents — later passed off by the authorities as voluntary deportation — while the authorities turned a blind eye.
A series of cases have come before the European Court of Human Rights in which Russia allowed Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to render dissidents from Russia, in breach of court orders from Strasbourg.
And those are just the known cases.
China is in a league of its own when it comes to human rights. There is a disturbing rise in disappearances of prominent individuals — the actress Fan Bingbang was missing for four months, re-emerging to admit to tax evasion.
The diplomatic tit-for-tat with Canada over the detention and extradition to the US of Meng Wanzhou, a Huawei executive, last year has led to Canadian citizens being detained in China on national security grounds. The former diplomat Michael Kovrig and the investment adviser Michael Spavor were charged with stealing state secrets. There seems to be no prospect of them having anything but Cold War-style show trials.
The pattern of disappearance followed by confession is a familiar one used by repressive regimes. Allowing China to use legal means to exert more influence in Hong Kong will silence critics, dissenting voices and destroy civic discourse.
This article was originally published on Monday, 17 June 2019. You can read the article on the Times website here.
Ben Keith is a barrister specialising in Extradition, Immigration, Serious Fraud, Human Rights and Public law. He has extensive experience of appellate proceedings before the Administrative and Divisional Courts, as well as applications and appeals to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) and United Nations. He has significant expertise in the challenge of INTERPOL Red Notices. He is ranked in Chambers and Partners and Legal 500 in the top tiers.