By Kris Cheng, Tom Grundy & Jennifer Creery
Hong Kong’s government has suspended a controversial extradition law bill until further notice after months of protest and criticism.
At a press conference on Saturday, Chief Executive Carrie Lam said pro-Beijing lawmakers had urged the government to delay the bill, and said Taiwan had made it clear it would not receive the murder suspect whose case triggered the proposal.
“The urgency of passing this bill within this term has maybe disappeared,” she said.
As a responsible government, I feel obliged to find a way to deal with the Taiwan murder case so that justice can be done for the deceased, her parents and society, while at the same time address the deficiencies in our system so that Hong Kong will not become a place for criminals to evade legal responsibility. These are the two original purposes of the Government in putting forward the legislative proposal to amend the Fugitive Offenders Ordinance and the Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Ordinance.
After careful examination of the relevant laws and the practices of other jurisdictions, the legislative amendment exercise started in Hong Kong in February this year. Our proposal is based on the existing legislation, with the relevant human rights safeguards and procedural safeguards, including the role of the court and the fair and impartial judicial system of Hong Kong, being fully maintained. Relevant colleagues have been discussing with various sectors of the community in a rational manner and listening to their views on our legislative proposal. As the suspect in the Taiwan case, who has been in jail on other charges, may be released soon, we have been trying to get the bill passed within the current legislative year, that is, before the Legislative Council summer recess in July this year.
As a matter of fact, after listening to the views of society, we have introduced amendments to our proposal on two occasions. The first occasion was before the introduction of the bill, when we took out nine categories of offences from the list of offences subject to surrender, and lifted the threshold for punishment of the offences from imprisonment for more than one year to more than three years. The second occasion was after the introduction of the bill in the Legislative Council, when we increased the threshold from more than three years to not less than seven years, as well as introduced a number of additional human rights safeguards that are in line with international standards. The amendments were made to ease the concerns of society, while securing more support for the bill.
My relevant colleagues and I have made our best efforts. But I have to admit that our explanation and communication work has not been sufficient or effective. Although many people agreed with our two original purposes, there are still supporting views and opposing ones on the bill, and their stances are very often polarised. Furthermore, many members of the public still have concerns and doubts about the bill. Some find it difficult to understand why the urgency, and are unhappy with the process of the amendments. We have made many attempts to narrow differences and eliminate doubts.
In the last week, tens of thousands of people took part in protests and gatherings. Serious conflicts broke out in the early hours on Monday after the public procession last Sunday and during the protest in the Admiralty area on Wednesday, resulting in a number of police officers, media workers and other members of the public being injured. I am saddened by this, as are other citizens. As a responsible government, we have to maintain law and order on the one hand, and evaluate the situation for the greatest interest of Hong Kong, including restoring calmness in society as soon as possible and avoiding any more injuries to law enforcement officers and citizens. I am grateful for the views of many pro-establishment legislators and leaders of various community sectors conveyed to me over the last few days either openly or in private, that we should pause and think instead of resuming the Second Reading debate on the bill at the Legislative Council as scheduled. This would prevent dealing a further blow to society. In fact, in consideration of the overt and clear expression by Taiwan repeatedly that it would not accede to the suggested arrangement of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Government in the transfer of the concerned suspect, the original urgency to pass the bill in this legislative year is perhaps no longer there.
After repeated internal deliberations over the last two days, I now announce that the Government has decided to suspend the legislative amendment exercise, restart our communication with all sectors of society, do more explanation work and listen to different views of society. I want to stress that the Government is adopting an open mind to heed comprehensively different views in society towards the bill. The Secretary for Security will send a letter to the Legislative Council President to withdraw the notice of resumption of the Second Reading debate on the bill. In other words, the Council will halt its work in relation to the bill until our work in communication, explanation and listening to opinions is completed. We have no intention to set a deadline for this work and promise to report to and consult members of the Legislative Council Panel on Security before we decide on the next step forward.
I would like to thank all the pro-establishment legislators and members of the public for their support all along for our legislative exercise, as well as the people and organisations that have expressed their views in a peaceful and rational manner, even if they do not support the bill. As a free, open and pluralistic society, Hong Kong needs such a spirit of mutual respect and harmony in diversity.
Lastly, as the Chief Executive of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, I want to stress that the original purposes of the exercise stem from my and my team’s passion for Hong Kong and our empathy for Hong Kong people. I feel deep sorrow and regret that the deficiencies in our work and various other factors have stirred up substantial controversies and dispute in society following the relatively calm periods of the past two years, disappointing many people. We will adopt the most sincere and humble attitude to accept criticisms and make improvements so that we can continue to connect with the people of Hong Kong.
Thank you very much.
She said the government will continue to consult the public, before deciding future plans: “We should pause and think instead of assuming the second reading of the bill in the Legislative Council as scheduled.”
Lam added that the government is adopting an open mind to “heed comprehensively” the views of different sectors of society.
No deadline for the bill has been announced, though Lam said she has “deep sorrow and regret” that the recent events have stirred up “substantial controversies.”
A protest planned for Sunday will proceed as planned.
In February, Hong Kong proposed legal amendments to allow it to handle case-by-case extradition requests from jurisdictions with no prior agreements – most notably China. Lawyers, journalists, foreign politicians and businesses have raised concerns over the risk of residents being extradited to the mainland, which lacks human rights protections. More than one million people marched last Sunday against the bill, according to organisers. On Wednesday, demonstrators occupied areas outside the legislature until police deployed tear gas and rubber bullets after frontline demonstrators threw objects.
The government’s plans were spurred by the case of Poon Hiu-wing, a pregnant 20-year-old Hong Kong woman who was killed during a trip to Taiwan last February. Her boyfriend Chan Tong-kai is now serving jail time for unrelated charges.
Pro-Beijing paper Sing Tao Daily reported that Chinese Vice Premier Han Zheng met Lam in Shenzhen on Friday evening. Lam then had a cabinet meeting with her top officials at 10:30pm, lasting until midnight.
When Lam was asked on Saturday if the postponement would satisfy the public, she said she still believed her initial intention for the law amendment was correct, given that the pro-establishment camp supported her: “But we should be open to listening to the public.”
She insisted that there was a loophole in Hong Kong’s criminal system and that her administration would not retract the bill. Asked if she would resign, she said the social atmosphere was calmer in the last two years.
“We regret that this incident caused a split in society,” she said.
Concerning the police use of force against protesters, and their decision to deem the unrest a riot, Lam said she supported the force: “I believe they were restrained and responsible.”
Lam said the bill was initiated by the Hong Kong government, and the central government understood, trusted and supported her. She said she contacted Beijing when the local government made its second concession that extradition requests from the mainland could only be made by a top Chinese court.
When challenged about the perception that Hong Kong’s chief executive is the control of the central government, Lam pushed back: “If that is a view then that is a view that does not sit well with the Basic Law.”
She added she had a responsibility to both Beijing and the people of Hong Kong: “If your boss who pays your salary asks you to do something unlawful, you don’t do it,” she said.
Lam said that one of the reasons her government suspended the bill was because of concerns about further clashes: “If there was another confrontation it could be much more serious,” she said, adding that Beijing had been informed of the decision. As to whether she would seek to push the bill through before her term ends in 2022, Lam said she could not make any promises.
On Friday, Michael Tien became the first pro-Beijing legislator to call publicly for a delay of the extradition bill. Executive Council members including Ronny Tong and Lam Ching-choi also said the government should consider delaying the bill.
Organisers of Sunday’s anti-extradition law protest say they will press on with their plan as the purposes of the march remain the same. The Civil Human Rights Front said they will condemn the police use of force and demand the characterisation of Wednesday’s protest as a “riot” be retracted: “We also demand that the government should release all [those] arrested in the protesters and do not prosecute them,” their statement read.
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