The Law Society has warned that plans by the Hong Kong government to reform extradition laws so that suspects could be transferred to mainland China for trial may put lawyers at risk.

Hong Kong is in the process of changing its law so that requests from authorities in mainland China, Taiwan and Macau will be considered. The changes are included in the Fugitive Offenders and Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Legislation (Amendment) Bill 2019. Hong Kong hopes to have the new law in place by July.

Any extradition request, which would be decided on a case-by-case basis by Hong Kong courts, would only apply for suspects accused of criminal offences, such as murder and rape. Political or religious offences would be exempt, Hong Kong says.

But Society president Christina Blacklaws warned that individuals who defend human rights are often charged with other offences – for example, under criminal or anti-terror legislation.

‘We have on many times raised concerns with the Chinese government regarding the arrest, and prosecution of lawyers and human rights defenders, as well as their imprisonment at undisclosed locations where there have been reports of torture and ill-treatment. In many cases, detainees have not had access to a lawyer of their own choosing,’ Blacklaws said.

Hong Kong’s Bar Association (HKBA) – which represents barristers operating in the special administrative region - has also expressed concern. In a summary of observations on the proposed law seen by the Gazette, the HKBA said rendition of fugitives to mainland China is ‘a complex legal matter and a controversial issue that has been in abeyance since 1997’ [when Hong Kong moved to Chinese control under the ‘one country two systems’ regime]. 

‘HKBA is concerned that the government is now “jumping the gun” by seeking to put in place ad hoc rendition arrangements in apparent breach of its commitment for full consultation on this delicate matter,’ it said.

Blacklaws added: ‘Everyone has a right to a fair trial. Any extradition to a country where the person extradited would face torture or ill-treatment is a violation of international human rights law.’

This week, the FT reported that two US politicians have said the planned law could ‘erode Hong Kong’s reputation as a centre of commerce governed by the rule of law.’