Thousands of lawyers clad in black took to the streets of Hong Kong Thursday in protest at plans to allow the rendition of alleged criminal suspects to mainland China.
The lawyers came out of the Court of Final Appeal in the city's central business district and marched in silence to government headquarters, with applause from onlookers as they went.
They were joined by prominent pro-democracy figures including Democratic Party founder Martin Lee, rights activist and barrister Albert Ho, and current Civic Party Legislative Council (LegCo) member Dennis Kwok.
Ronny Wong, former head of the Hong Kong Bar Association, said the government had refused to listen to the opionions of the city's legal profession, and hit out at officials' claims that there were adequate human rights protections in the proposed amendments to the Fugitive Offenders Ordinance currently before LegCo.
"It is completely unreasonable that they are demolishing the [legal] firewall [between Hong Kong and mainland China] with no justification, and against the interests of the Hong Kong people," Wong told reporters at the rally. "
March organizer Dennis Kwok said as many as 3,000 lawyers had taken part.
"The legal profession is coming out in the hope that the people of Hong Kong will listen to them, and oppose this amendment," Kwok said.
"Their position is very clear: they think this amendment will destroy the rule of law," he said. "I hope even more Hong Kong people will turn out at Victoria Park now that the legal profession has come out against it."
The government's planned legal amendment—which the ruling Chinese Communist Party wants implemented "urgently"—has sparked widespread fear that the city will lose its status as a separate legal jurisdiction, and that rights activists and dissidents in the city could be targeted by Beijing for actions deemed illegal across the internal border.
Judges, lawyers, opposition politicians, rights activists, business groups, and journalists have all expressed vocal opposition to the plan, which will allow China to request the extradition of an alleged suspect from Hong Kong based on the standards of evidence that currently apply in its own courts.
The most likely jurisdiction to use the proposed provision is mainland China, which currently has no formal extradition treaty with Hong Kong, and Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam has tried to reassure people that legal safeguards will be used to safeguard the rights of suspects.
But Wong said the government's supposed safeguards are meaningless.
"How are the courts going to act as a check. They are utterly ineffectual," he said, adding that the government's attempted justification of the amendment was "false."
Civic Party lawmaker Alvin Yeung said that while previous protests by Hong Kong lawyers were sparked by intervention by China's National People's Congress (NPC) in the city's political life, this one is the first to target the actions of the city's own government.
"This is mostly about the actions and ideas of the Hong Kong government," Yeung said. "The NPC hasn't even played a role in this."
A protesting lawyer who gave only his surname Fung said he had joined the march to protest at the government's attempts to railroad the amendments through LegCo, where customary committee-level scrutiny of the bill has been canceled.
"The wording of the amendment, and the way they have handled this from the start, are an outrage," Fung said. "The outcome will be the death of the rule of law in Hong Kong and the city's future."
"Once we lose the rule of law in Hong Kong, we are finished," he said. "That is the one thing that gives Hong Kong its added value."
A participant surnamed Ho said he wanted to express his concern over the lack of power by the courts to stop a proposed extradition once it has been requested.
"The government isn't acting in good faith, nor is it respecting due process or listening to people's views," Ho said. "I think that the government is determined to get its proposal through, and any concessions made along the way have been made on recommendations from the business community."
The march comes as five pro-democracy LegCo members occupied the LegCo chamber on Thursday ahead of a larger march against the renditions law that is planned for Sunday.
Chu Hoi-dick, Jeremy Tam, Roy Kwong, Ted Hui, and Gary Fan said they will take it in turns to occupy the building over the weekend in a bid to raise public awareness of the protest.
Across the border in mainland China, activists said a WeChat social media group supporting the campaign against the extradition law had been shut down. Group member Li Na said the Chinese government is worried that such demonstrations could spread to China.
Reported by Lee Wang-yam for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Qiao Long and Lu Xi for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.