UPDATED at 2:25 P.M. EDT on 2019-05-07
Pro-democracy lawmakers in Hong Kong say they make take legal action against the secretary general of the city's Legislative Council (LegCo) amid a bitter procedural row over controversial amendments to extradition laws allowing renditions to mainland China.
Pro-democracy members of LegCo are accusing Kenneth Chen of misconduct in public office after he helped pro-Beijing lawmakers in their bid to seize control of a committee scrutinizing the amendments.
They say a letter from the secretariat paved the way for the ouster of Democratic Party lawmaker James To as chairman of the committee, after he allowed extensive filibustering in the committee by the pro-democracy camp, who oppose the amendments.
Pro-democracy lawmakers say the secretariat lacks authorization to write to lawmakers about To, and accuse it of taking part in a political coup with pro-Beijing LegCo members. Pro-Beijing lawmaker Abraham Shek says he has replaced To as committee chair.
"He revoked my appointment as chairman, but not using a legal, written form," To told reporters after a meeting of the committee was declared not to have been, in fact, a meeting of the committee.
"On that basis, [Shek] issued the notice canceling [a planned] meeting this afternoon, but that is invalid because it wasn't issued by me," he said.
Pan-democratic camp convenor Claudia Mo said the members could apply for a judicial review.
"[This is] an act of subversion by the LegCo secretariat, who is supposed to serve the entire legislature and not just one sector of pro-Beijing lawmakers," Mo told government broadcaster RTHK.
"The fact that they would just bypass all the necessary rules and regulations in order to achieve what their bosses want is more than preposterous."
A call for calm
LegCo president Andrew Leung called for calm on Monday as To declared that he was still presiding over the bills committee, calling for discussions to resolve the dispute. However, he claimed that the secretariat had acted neutrally, and in accordance with LegCo rules, something the pro-democracy camp disputes.
"Everyone needs to take a step back, or maybe sit down and discuss a way out of this dilemma," Leung said. "This shouldn't continue to be handled in a confrontational manner."
The dispute came as a delegation of veteran democrats from Hong Kong visited Canada in a bid to highlight the dangers of the amendments to Hong Kong's Fugitive Offenders Ordinance.
Democratic Party founder Martin Lee, former pro-democracy student leader and ousted lawmaker Nathan Law were among the delegation calling on the Canadian government to take note of the harm that could be done to Hong Kong.
"The Fugitive Offenders Ordinance [amendments] won't just target Hong Kong people; it will also affect Canadians," Lee said during the trip, which will include meetings with Canadian lawmakers and government officials. "I hope that the Canadian government and the [overseas Chinese] community will stand with us and call on the Hong Kong government to stop them."
"Chinese Canadians may have moved to Canada, but the Chinese government still regards you as a Chinese citizen," Lee warned, adding: "China’s criminal law applies to both Chinese citizens and foreign nationals."
Taking to the streets
Pro-democracy leaders and rights activists in Hong Kong have warned of mass demonstrations if the government presses ahead in the face of public opposition.
Last month, tens of thousands of people took to the city's streets in protest over the amendments, which would allow rendition of criminal suspects to mainland China in the absence of an extradition agreement.
The planned changes to the Fugitive Offenders Ordinance will allow the Hong Kong government to respond to case-by-case requests for extradition in the absence of a bilateral treaty.
The most likely jurisdiction to use the proposed provision is the ruling Chinese Communist Party, which currently has no bilateral arrangement with Hong Kong.
Journalists have warned that the new law could both threaten the safety of journalists, who have traditionally used the city as a safe haven, and have a chilling effect on freedom of expression in Hong Kong.
Under the terms of the 1997 handover to China, Hong Kong was promised the continuation of its traditional freedoms of the press, of speech and association, as well as an independent judiciary and separate legal system, under the "one country, two systems" framework that has sheltered peaceful critics of Beijing until now.
But pro-democracy politicians and rights activists say they have little faith in the Hong Kong government's promises that rendition requests from Beijing will be subjected to stringent human rights protections.
The march came after a Hong Kong court jailed four founding members of the 2014 Occupy Central movement, handing down jail terms of 16 months to Hong Kong University law lecturer Benny Tai and retired sociology professor Chan Kin-man on public order charges that included "inciting others to cause a public nuisance."
Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced late on Tuesday that security minister John Lee and Secretary for Justice Teresa Chengwould hold a news conference later in the day to address the views of the public and “for a more holistic discussion in society”.
“It does not mean changes will be made [to the bill],” she said, according to the South China Morning Post.
Currently, suspects must be wanted for a crime that is an offense both in Hong Kong and another jurisdiction with which it has an extradition treaty, and requests are limited to a list of 46 serious crimes including murder, assault, and sex offenses.
But under the proposed changes, citizens of the democratic island of Taiwan and other countries traveling through Hong Kong could also be placed in jeopardy, should Beijing decide that it wanted to accuse them of a crime.
Democratic politicians have also pointed to the arrests of several Canadian nationals on Chinese territory since the arrest of Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver on Dec. 1, 2018, and to the 2015 cross-border detentions of five booksellers, including a Swedish and a U.K. national, wanted for selling books banned in mainland China to customers there, despite the fact that their actions were entirely legal in Hong Kong.
One of the five booksellers, Lam Wing-kei, has fled Hong Kong for fear he could be redetained and sent back to China if the amended law gets through LegCo.
China's justice system has a record of arbitrary detention, torture, and other ill-treatment, of serious violations of fair trial rights, and of various systems of incommunicado detention without trial, the New York-based Human Rights Watch has warned.
The amendments being proposed in Hong Kong would heighten the risk for human rights activists and others critical of China being extradited to the mainland for trial on fabricated charges, and would be a "devastating blow" to the city's freedoms, it said.
Reported by Lau Siu-fung for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Liu Fei for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.