Hong Kong Security Law

Hong Kong issues new national security law bill with tougher jail terms


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Hong Kong issues new national security law bill with tougher jail terms

HONG KONG. A man checks his phone at the waterfront, with a tourist junk boat in the backdrop, on a foggy day in Hong Kong, China, March 6, 2024.

yrone Siu/REUTERS

The draft, which includes new laws encompassing treason, espionage and external interference, is being closely watched by foreign diplomats and businesses who fear it could further dent freedoms in the financial hub

HONG KONG – Hong Kong on Friday, March 8, published its draft of a new national security law, a document some lawyers said broadened what could be considered sedition and state secrets, with tougher penalties for anyone convicted of those crimes and several others.

The draft, which includes new laws encompassing treason, espionage and external interference, is being closely watched by foreign diplomats and businesses who fear it could further dent freedoms in the financial hub, which has already been subjected to a China-led crackdown on dissent that has sent many pro-democracy politicians and activists into jail or exile.

The Legislative Council started debating the bill on Friday amid tight security, and several members of the largely pro-Beijing body said they expected it to be passed into law before mid-April.

Hong Kong leader John Lee had earlier urged lawmakers to pass the bill “at full speed.”

“The geopolitics have become increasingly complex, and national security risks remain imminent,” a government statement said.

Some lawyers analyzing the draft said that at first glance, elements of the revised sentences for some listed offenses are similar to Western ones but some provisions, such as those for sedition and state secrets, are broader and potentially tougher.

The bill includes sentences of up to life imprisonment for treason, insurrection and sabotage, 20 years for espionage, and 10 years for crimes linked to state secrets and sedition.

The European Union, in a statement to Reuters, said it had made clear in a diplomatic note its “grave concerns” over the far-reaching provisions in the bill on “external interference” and the law’s extra-territorial reach.

A spokesperson for the US State Department said the United States is closely monitoring the development of the so-called Article 23 legislation, “and its implications for US citizens and companies operating in Hong Kong.”

“We have serious concerns that if authorities rush forward with enacting proposed Article 23 legislation without adequate public consultation or incorporating checks and balances, the law will be used to continue suppressing dissent and erode the human rights and fundamental freedoms for people in Hong Kong,” the official said.

The draft bill noted some rights provisions.

“Human rights are to be respected and protected, the rights and freedoms, including the freedoms of speech, of the press and of publication, the freedoms of association… are to be protected,” the bill read.

Some investors said the desire to fast-track the bill was concerning.

“The fact they are rushing through Article 23 shows concern about public opposition. The business community is going to be unhappy unless there are guardrails protecting individual rights,” Andrew Collier, managing director at Hong Kong-based Orient Capital Research, told Reuters.

Simon Young, a law professor at the University of Hong Kong, also said the broad definitions of crimes, especially those linked to foreign interference and collusion, could prove challenging to firms.

“It may well be that businesses or groups that have some connection with foreign governments might fall under the radar as an ‘external force,'” Young said.

Concerns over freedoms

Hong Kong has long been a business, academic, and media hub for China and the region, but critics say that in recent years the rule of law and freedom of information have been undermined.

Hong Kong and Chinese officials have said the draft is similar to laws in some Western nations and that it was necessary to plug “loopholes” in the national security regime.

That regime was bolstered in 2020 by another law imposed directly by China which said it was aimed at restoring stability after pro-democracy protests a year earlier.

The debate on the Hong Kong bill coincides with a move by China’s top lawmakers to create a slew of new national security laws in order to safeguard the mainland’s sovereign interests.

The Hong Kong bill proposes extending police detention for those arrested, without charge, for up to 14 days with a magistrate’s approval and potentially limited access to lawyers, compared to 48 hours currently.

Sentences for sedition, defined as inciting disaffection or hatred towards authorities through acts, words, or publications, have been expanded from two to up to 10 years for offenses in collusion with foreign forces.

Critics, including media advocacy groups, had called for sedition to be scrapped, noting its potential use to silence freedom of expression and the media.

The bill proposes jail terms of up to three years, up from one year, for possessing a seditious publication and police have the right to search any premise to seize and destroy such material.

The definition of state secrets also appears quite broad, some lawyers said, including military, security and diplomatic secrets, as well as classified social, economic and technological information involving the China and Hong Kong governments, and their relationship. – Rappler.com

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