The government has decided to introduce changes to the highly controversial extradition bill, a move that was welcomed by business groups but did little to allay pan-democrats’ concerns.
At a media session on Thursday, Secretary for Security John Lee Ka-chiu announced that six extra measures will be added to the Fugitive Offenders and Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Legislation (Amendment) Bill 2019, the Hong Kong Economic Journal reports.
They are likely to be proposed to the Legislative Council in the form of a policy statement, Lee said, adding that they are aimed at alleviating public concerns and striking a good balance following opinions and suggestions received by the government.
The announcement came a few hours after 39 pro-Beijing lawmakers jointly wrote a letter to the government seeking more safeguards in bill, including raising the threshold to cover only extraditable offenses punishable with a jail sentence of seven years instead of three years and that requests for extradition to a jurisdiction would only be considered if they came from the central authorities, both of which were very similar to those proposed by the Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce (HKGCC) on Monday.
Lee said the extra measures mainly cover three aspects－dealing with the most serious crimes only, putting more restrictions on initiations of extradition agreements, and enhancing protection of suspects’ rights.
One of these measures is to raise the threshold for extraditable offenses to those punishable by a jail sentence of seven years or more, Lee said.
“And seven years or above is the usual kind of offense that would be dealt with in the High Court, and that is easily understood by the people of Hong Kong. So by comparing to what a High Court will usually try, we think that seven years or more is the right balance,” he said.
The security chief said extradition under the new legislation would not be possible for seven crimes of three types involving criminal intimidation, giving possession of arms or ammunition to an unlicensed person and child pornography.
As for restrictions on the initiation of extradition agreements, Lee said the government will only consider extradition requests from jurisdictions that are made through their top authorities and that would mean an extradition request to the mainland would have to come from the Supreme People’s Court or the Supreme People’s Procuratorate.
The government will also seek to obtain various guarantees before agreeing to an extradition, such as that suspects would be allowed an open trial and with legal representation, that they wouldn’t be forced to make a confession, and that they could appeal against the judgement eventually handed down, RTHK quoted Lee as saying.
Lee reiterated that revising the extradition conforms with the Basic Law and doing so will not affect any existing legal rights and freedoms.
HKGCC chairman Aron Harilela said it is good to see that the government took the business group’s suggestions.
HKGCC’s Legco representative Jeffrey Lam Kin-fung, who is also a member of the Executive Council and a legislator representing the Business and Professionals Alliance for Hong Kong, said the new changes would allay concerns from the industrial and business sectors, and people would now support the bill.
The Chinese General Chamber of Commerce, the Chinese Manufacturers’ Association of Hong Kong, the Federation of Hong Kong Industries and the Hong Kong Chinese Importers’ and Exporters’ Association said in a joint statement that they welcomed the government’s decision to listen to the views of the private sector and hoped Legco’s deliberations on the bill could begin as soon as possible.
However, the pan-democratic camp appeared far from satisfied with the government’s concessions, calling them impractical and demanding the immediate retraction of the bill.
Lawmaker Claudia Mo Man-ching, convener of the pan-democrats’ meeting group of lawmakers, said the concessions failed to get to the crux of the public’s concerns, RTHK reported.
Civic Party leader Alvin Yeung Ngok-kiu, who is a barrister, said adding the extra measures through a policy statement means they will not be written into the bill and therefore not legally binding.
The government could change the statement at any time with no Legco approval needed, he added.
Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor on Friday said the latest measures were meant to allay public concerns as she rejected claims that the government had only listened to the business sector when making the changes to the extradition bill.
“If you look seriously into the six measures under the three categories, they actually deal with concerns and ideas or suggestions raised by a cross-spectrum of bodies, including some from lawyers who want more assurances on the human rights front. So I wouldn’t accept any accusation that this was done for the business sector,” Lam told media.
The bill, along with the new measures, will be sent straight to Legco as a whole on June 12, bypassing a bills committee that was supposed to scrutinize it first.
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