A number of countries are reviewing their bilateral agreements with Hong Kong amid growing international concern over plans to allow renditions of alleged criminal suspects to mainland China, politicians said following a lunch with diplomats on Monday.
Diplomats from several countries expressed fears that their nationals could run afoul of the legal changes, and be transferred to mainland China where there would be scant protection for their human rights, Civic Party lawmaker Dennis Kwok told reporters.
Last month, thousands of people took to the streets in protest at the planned amendment to the city's Fugitive Offenders Ordinance, which will allow the Hong Kong government to grant extradition requests on a case-by-case basis with no meaningful judicial oversight, to countries with which it lacks an extradition treaty.
The most likely jurisdiction to use the proposed provision is mainland China, which currently has no extradition treaty with Hong Kong.
"They are rushing this through in such a hurry, and we don't even know why they are in such a hurry," Kwok said. "A lot of consulates said they are scratching their heads over this."
The ruling Chinese Communist Party has publicly called for the changes to be implemented as a matter of urgency, saying those criticizing the plans have "an ulterior motive."
Kwok said a number of consulates, mostly from Western countries, are planning to lodge diplomatic protests with the Hong Kong government.
"As for the next step, there was talk of announcing the withdrawal of the consulates, or a change in the bilateral relationship with Hong Kong," Kwok said.
Lack of protections
Pro-Beijing lawmaker Regina Ip said after attending the lunch that many envoys are concerned over a lack of human rights protections.
"They're worried that, once the law is amended, that human rights protections will be weak, because the Legislative Council [LegCo] won't be scrutinizing the bill any further," Yip told reporters, in a reference to the recent scrapping of the scrutiny stage of the bill -- a normal part of any bill's passage through LegCo.
Yip repeated the government's argument that Hong Kong's courts will still vet extradition requests, and that the decision of the chief executive to extradite could still be challenged using a judicial review application.
But rights groups have said that courts won't review evidence as part of the extradition process, and will lack the power to decide whether evidence submitted in support of applications by the mainland Chinese authorities is admissible in Hong Kong.
The diplomats' concern comes amid widespread criticism of the amendments both in Hong Kong and overseas, as they would potentially expose anyone in Hong Kong to targeting by officials in China, which lacks human rights protections, legal due process, and judicial independence.
According to barrister and Democratic Party founder Martin Lee, alleged criminal suspects of any nationality could be transferred to face trial in mainland China on the basis of untested evidence, for example, a personal affidavit.
Democratic Party lawmaker James To said Hong Kong officials have been closing the door on meetings with business groups and diplomats who want to talk about the renditions law.
To, who has challengedexecutive Carrie Lam to a televised debate on the proposed amendments, says she should answer up to the people of Hong Kong.
"[Carrie Lam] may be getting it right from the point of view of the Chinese government, and she's clearly very familiar with the arguments, so by rights she should be able to express them, and even to win people over," To said.
"Persuading people is part of the political process ... things would look much brighter for the people [of Hong Kong] if they were to get the opportunity [to hear her]," he said.
Preying on journalists
The Paris-based press freedom group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) warned last week that the planned changes, which are highly likely to get through a Legislative Council (LegCo) packed with pro-Beijing lawmakers, would "allow Beijing to legally prey on residents and visitors, including journalists and their sources."
A review by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission earlier this month warned that the amended law could increase Hong Kong's political vulnerability and further erode the city's promised autonomy.
The report found that the bill would remove independent legislative oversight in the extradition process and undermine strong legal protections guaranteed in Hong Kong, leaving the city and its residents exposed to Beijing’s "weak legal system and politically motivated charges."
It said renditions under the proposed amendments could create "serious risks" to U.S. national security and economic interests.
The Hong Kong Bar Association has warned that the law will place all decision-making power over renditions to mainland China into the hands of Hong Kong's chief executive, who is currently elected by a committee hand-picked by Beijing.
It said the new law will remove a layer of approval by LegCo, meaning that there is no way to hold the government accountable, and no provision allowing Hong Kong courts to refuse an extradition request on human rights grounds, nor to decide that evidence submitted by the mainland authorities is inadmissible.
Rights groups have also called on the Hong Kong government to scrap the legal changes, saying they could place people at risk of torture and unfair trials.
Reported by Lau Siu-fung for RFA's Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.