Open discussion needed

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 April, 2000, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 09 April, 2000, 12:00am

SECRETARY for Security Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee is heading for a showdown with legislators this week if she insists on keeping secret her negotiations with Beijing for a rendition agreement. They have called a special security panel meeting on Thursday to grill her about four days of talks she held with mainland officials in late March on the sensitive issue of establishing a system to extradite suspects across the border.

The Government calls the process rendition rather than extradition to avoid implying other countries are involved. Despite having signed extradition treaties with 11 countries, the SAR has so far been unable to formulate an agreement with the mainland even though negotiations have been running since 1996. That is mostly due to one reason: China's death penalty.

Hong Kong's legislative council would be unlikely to approve any agreement allowing suspects or wanted criminals to be returned to the mainland in cases where they faced execution. Indeed, the extradition treaties with other nations prevent offenders being returned if they face the death penalty or are being charged with political crimes.

Legislators believe Beijing would not agree to Hong Kong applying similar exceptions in any rendition agreement with it, even though the SAR is bound by international human rights covenants to do so. That is why Mrs Ip has been trying to soften up lawmakers over the past year, talking of the need to be 'more flexible' and warning of the danger that the city might become a 'haven for fugitive criminals'.

However, she should be reminded that local calls for such an agreement arose from Hong Kong's inability to demand the return of 'Big Spender' Cheung Tze-keung and the alleged Telford Gardens feng shui killer, Li Yuhui, to face justice in the SAR rather than across the border. Another case is pending - that of Wu Man, the Hong Kong resident and alleged associate of Cheung who was deported from Bangkok to Guangzhou.

By insisting that details of negotiations remain under wraps until legislators' approval of an agreement is required, Mrs Ip is embarking on a potentially hazardous course. She is relinquishing the valuable opportunity to engage lawmakers in a full and open discussion on an extremely sensitive issue for Hong Kong citizens.