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Hong Kong feels chill of new security law

Serial blows as local elections are postponed, top lawyer quits and pro-democracy professor is dismissed

Hong Kong feels chill of new security law

Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam speaks during a press conference on July 31 to announce that local elections planned for September would be postponed because coronavirus cases have surged in the international finance hub. (Photo: AFP)

The last vestiges of democracy in Hong Kong, such as they are, are being stripped away quickly.

The territory’s government — no doubt on Beijing’s orders — last week postponed the Legislative Council elections for a year, but many observers believe they may never be held.

Chief executive Carrie Lam invoked emergency powers to postpone the September polls, citing the risk of escalating the Covid-19 crisis. 

The decision came less than one month after the imposition of a draconian new national security law for the city and just one day after the disqualification of 12 opposition candidates from competing in elections, including Joshua Wong, 23, the leader of the 2015 Umbrella Movement that called for more democracy and independence for Hong Kong. The other candidates were Alvin Cheng, Tat Cheng, Gwyneth Ho, Kwok Ka-ki, Dennis Kwok, Ventus Lau, Fergus Leung, Kenneth Leung, Lester Shum, Alvin Yeung and Tiffany Yuen.

This capped a horror week for Hong Kong that saw teenagers arrested under the new security law, the dismissal of pro-democracy professor Benny Tai from the University of Hong Kong and the resignation of David Leung, the well-regarded director of public prosecutions, in what is likely to be a huge blow for Hong Kong’s increasingly fragile legal system.

Tai was another leading figure in the Umbrella protests. He was sentenced to 16 months in prison last year for “public nuisance” offences but released on bail pending an appeal. His university then began reviewing his position, but the original decision by the university senate that there were not grounds for dismissal was overturned on July 28 by its governing council.

“Recent events in Hong Kong show the continued deterioration of the rule of law and confirm fears that the recently imposed national security law will be used to violate rights,” said Annie Boyajian, director of advocacy at Freedom House.

“The arrest of student activists and the disqualification of a dozen pro-democracy Legislative Council candidates amount to a cynical attempt by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to silence dissent and strengthen control over Hong Kong.”

Boyajian added that retaliation against Hong Kongers exercising the rights to which they were supposed to be entitled under the law had confirmed that the “one country, two systems” model had been abandoned by the CCP and the Hong Kong government.

“We condemn the authorities’ ongoing suppression of rights in Hong Kong and urge officials to drop all charges against the students and reinstate the disqualified candidates,” she said.

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The timing of the new security law was very much aimed at the Legislative Council elections, which Beijing and its vassals in the Hong Kong government have been fretting about since pro-Beijing lawmakers were comprehensively routed in last November’s district council elections.

US lawyer and legal academic Jerry Cohen, one of the world’s foremost experts on Chinese law, sees Leung’s departure at the end of the year as disturbing. It follows disagreements between Leung and the secretary of justice.

“The most important functions of the Office of Hong Kong’s Secretary of Justice are carried out by the DPP and his staff. With respect to Hong Kong’s rule of law, that job has been more important than any judgeship or other judicial work. The DPP’s office is the most important place where discretion has to be exercised regarding whether someone in Hong Kong should be punished and, if so, for what offense,” Cohen wrote on his blog.

He added that Leung’s resignation as DPP tells us a lot about the changes required in Hong Kong justice under the national security law and that although during his leadership his office successfully carried out many unpopular prosecutions because, “after independent examination of each case, he decided, rightly or wrongly, that respect for the rule of law, including the exercise of discretion, justified prosecution.”

Cohen says that Leung steadfastly argued against police or politicians influencing the decisions to prosecute and that it was that independence that had apparently led “Beijing and its local minions to lose confidence in him.”

With little known about the security apparatus that is being established to prosecute the new security law, legal experts remain very concerned.

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