Hong Kong's Lam Defends Extradition Law After Thousands Protest

(Bloomberg) -- Hong Kong’s leader said she would press ahead with legislation to end a ban on extraditions to mainland China, despite opponents staging one of the largest mass protests since the 2014 Occupy movement.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam on Monday reaffirmed her plan to pass by the end of the legislative session in July a bill allowing one-time transfers of criminal suspects between the former British colony and other jurisdictions. The government said in an earlier statement that the legislation was necessary “to plug the loopholes” preventing extraditions to places such as mainland China, Macau and Taiwan.

Hong Kong's Lam Defends Extradition Law After Thousands Protest

“I realized at the very outset that this is not an easy task,” Lam told reporters. “This is going to be very controversial and contentious and that’s why we have taken up this task with very serious attention.”

The comments came after as many as 130,000 marched to the city’s Legislative Council building Sunday to protest against the bill, with many participants calling for Lam’s resignation. Although police estimated the crowd at less than 23,000, the demonstration was among the largest since months-long pro-democracy rallies in 2014 ended without securing any concessions from the Beijing-backed government.

Hong Kong's Lam Defends Extradition Law After Thousands Protest

Lam argues the law is needed to bring fugitives to justice, citing difficulties in pursuing murder charges against a young Hong Kong man over the death of his girlfriend while the pair were vacationing last year in the self-ruled island of Taiwan. The man, Chan Tong-kai, 20, confessed after returning to Hong Kong, with which it doesn’t have an extradition agreement.

On Monday, a Hong Kong court sentenced Chan to 29 months in prison on a lesser charge of money laundering, Radio Television Hong Kong reported. The ruling removes one reason for urgency in passing the law immediately.

Fresh Worry

The proposed law has prompted new concern about the legal autonomy guaranteed to Hong Kong before its return to China in 1997, as well as the risk of Hong Kong citizens and foreign residents being subject to prosecution on the mainland. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told a news briefing Monday in Beijing that the bill was necessary to “uphold the rule of law” in Hong Kong.

Besides local activists’ fears of political persecution, foreign business groups have warned that the legislation could reduce Hong Kong’s appeal as a global financial hub. While Sunday’s march was estimated to be the largest since as many as 200,000 people joined the Occupy demonstrations, an annual vigil commemorating the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown drew an estimated 135,000 in 2015, according to that event’s organizers.

Hong Kong's Lam Defends Extradition Law After Thousands Protest

“Certainly the protest had an impact because the turnout rate was very encouraging,” Albert Ho, a former lawmaker and chairman of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, said Monday. “There could be another protest in May, if there is no favorable response. The government has to respond.”

The sentencing of leaders of the Occupy protests last week to prison terms of up to 16 months might have contributed to the larger turnout Sunday. An upcoming event commemorating the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen incident on June 4 will present another opportunity for pro-democracy forces to show their numbers.

Hong Kong's Lam Defends Extradition Law After Thousands Protest

In response to criticism, Lam has already removed nine categories of business-related crimes from the potential offenses eligible for one-time extradition decisions. The government has so far given no indication that it could scrap the proposal, like it did for a controversial national security bill after a half million protesters took the streets in 2003.

“It would be a pity if it didn’t go through because of public opinion,” said Ronny Tong, a lawyer and member of Hong Kong’s Executive Council, a government advisory body. “If you believe Hong Kong courts can try criminal cases fairly, why can’t you trust the same courts to uphold our human rights and rule of law when considering an extradition request?”

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.