Hong Kong: First arrests under ‘anti-protest’ law as handover marked

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Media captionMany Hong Kong residents are worried the new security law means the ‘one country, two systems’ principle no longer exists

Hong Kong police have made their first arrests under a new “anti-protest” law imposed by Beijing, as crowds marked 23 years since the end of British rule.

Nine people were held accused of violating the law, including a man with a pro-independence flag. More than 300 others were detained at a banned rally.

The national security law targets secession, subversion and terrorism with punishments up to life in prison.

Activists say it erodes freedoms but China has dismissed the criticism.

Hong Kong’s sovereignty was handed back to China by Britain in 1997 and certain rights were supposed to be guaranteed for at least 50 years under the “one country, two systems” agreement.

The UK has now said it will offer a path to citizenship for Hong Kong residents who hold a British overseas (BNO) passport.

On Wednesday, thousands gathered for the annual pro-democracy rally to mark the anniversary, defying a ban by authorities who cited restrictions on gatherings of more than 50 people because of Covid-19.

Police used water cannon, tear gas and pepper spray on demonstrators. They said more than 300 people had been arrested, nine under the new law, which was adopted in the wake of last year’s widespread unrest.

They included a man who was holding a “Hong Kong Independence” flag, though some Twitter users said the picture appeared to show a small “no to” written in front of the slogan. The man has not been identified, and it was not clear whether he would be prosecuted.

Police also said an officer was stabbed in the arm by “rioters holding sharp objects”. The suspects fled and bystanders offered no help, they said.

The legislation has been widely condemned by countries including the US and UK as well as human rights activists. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said: “[China] promised 50 years of freedom to the Hong Kong people, and gave them only 23.”

In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian urged countries to look at the situation objectively and said China would not allow foreign interference in its domestic affairs.

Earlier, Zhang Xiaming of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs office of the State Council bristled at foreign critics, asking them: “What’s this got to do with you?”

Speaking in the House of Commons, UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab called the measures a “flagrant assault” on freedoms of speech and protest, saying China had “broken” its international obligations.

Mr Raab said the UK would extend immigration rights for people in Hong Kong who hold British National Overseas (BNO) status. Around 300,000 people are BNO passport holders, but an estimated 2.9 million are eligible.

Meanwhile, the UK has updated its travel advice on Hong Kong, saying there is an “increased risk of detention, and deportation for a non-permanent resident” due to the new law.

Hong Kong’s new security law

What is happening on the anniversary?

Demonstrators in the Causeway Bay district chanted “resist till the end” and “Hong Kong independence” amid warnings that certain slogans and banners might constitute serious crimes under the controversial law.

“I’m scared of going to jail but for justice I have to come out today, I have to stand up,” a 35-year-old man who gave his name as Seth told Reuters news agency.

Ahead of the protest, pro-democracy activist Tsang Kin-shing, of the League of Social Democrats, warned there was a “large chance of our being arrested”, saying: “The charges will not be light, please judge for yourself.”

Photos on social media – confirmed by police as genuine – showed a flag being used by officers to warn protesters about the new law. Some 4,000 officers were on standby to handle unrest, the South China Morning Post reported.

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Police are carrying this banner warning protesters about the new law

What does the new law say?

Crimes of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces are punishable by a minimum sentence of three years, with the maximum being life. It also says:

  • Damaging public transport facilities – which often happened during the 2019 protests – can be considered terrorism
  • Beijing will establish a new security office in Hong Kong, with its own law enforcement personnel – neither of which would come under the local authority’s jurisdiction
  • Inciting hatred of China’s central government and Hong Kong’s regional government are now offences under Article 29
  • The law can also be broken from abroad by non-residents under Article 38, and this could mean that foreigners could be arrested on arrival in Hong Kong if they are suspected of breaking the new law
  • Some trials will be heard behind closed doors

Beijing will also have power over how the law should be interpreted, and not any Hong Kong judicial or policy body. If the law conflicts with any Hong Kong law, the Beijing law takes priority.

Mr Zhang said the law would not be applied retroactively – that is, to offences committed before it was passed – and that suspects arrested in Hong Kong on charges of violating the law may be tried on the mainland.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing leader, said the law would “restore stability”, saying: “The [new law] is considered the most important development in relations between the central government and Hong Kong since the handover.”

A turning point

By Michael Bristow, BBC World Service Asia-Pacific editor

The law gives Beijing extensive powers to shape life in the territory that it has never had before. It not only introduces a series of tough punishments for a long list of crimes, it changes the way justice is administered.

Trials can be held in secret – and without a jury. Judges can be handpicked. The law reverses a presumption that suspects will be granted bail. There appears to be no time limit on how long people can be held.

Crimes are described in vague terms, leading to the possibility of broad interpretation, and the right to interpret lies only in Beijing. Foreign nationals outside of Hong Kong face prosecution.

Most cases will be handled in Hong Kong, but the mainland can take over “complex”, “serious” or “difficult” cases. Whether or not you think the legislation was necessary, it is impossible to deny its significance. As Hong Kong’s leader Carrie Lam put it: this is a turning point.

What reaction has the new law drawn?

Minutes after the law was passed on Tuesday, pro-democracy activists began to quit, fearful of the punishment the new law allows.

“With sweeping powers and ill-defined law, the city will turn into a secret police state,” said Joshua Wong, a key pro-democracy leader. The political party he co-founded – Demosisto – was disbanded.

Ted Hui, an opposition legislator, told the BBC: “Our freedom is gone, our rule of law, our judicial independence is gone”.

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Media captionAi Weiwei: “Today is the darkest day for Hong Kong”

Mr Pompeo said the “draconian” law “destroyed Hong Kong’s autonomy”, adding: “Beijing’s paranoia and fear of its own people’s aspirations have led it to eviscerate the very foundation of the territory’s success.”

The EU expressed “grave concerns” that the law could “seriously undermine” the city’s independence.

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Media captionJimmy Lai: China’s security law ‘spells the death knell for Hong Kong’

In the US, lawmakers from both parties have launched a bill to give refugee status to Hong Kong residents at risk of persecution, reported local media outlets.

Taiwan’s government has said it will set up a special office to help those in Hong Kong facing immediate political risks.

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