Tung's team challenged to justify rights law changes

Chris Yeung

The propaganda war over plans to tighten control of public protests and political groups began in earnest yesterday when the Government published a rebuttal of the controversial proposals.

The 23-page commentary claimed legislative changes published by the Chief Executive-designate's Office on Wednesday would significantly increase official powers to restrict freedom of assembly and association.

The Government claimed the existing Public Order and Societies ordinances already 'struck a balance between the protection of civil liberties and the need to maintain social order'.

They were also consistent with the Basic Law and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

'There has been no sign of any deterioration of law and order,' the document said.

There was no 'practicable requirement for changes'.

The proposals call for the registration of societies and ban political groups from establishing ties with, or be funded by, foreign organisations, including those in Taiwan.

They also demand that police receive seven days' advance warning of demonstrations, which can only be staged after a notice of 'no objection' has been issued.

At present, police need only be notified beforehand.

The changes, outlined in a 36-page document, are subject to public consultation until the end of the month.

Last night, copies of both documents were piled side by side at district offices.

The Government paper challenged Tung Chee-hwa's office to explain how it justified the amendments on the grounds of 'national security' and 'public safety' under Article 21 and 22 of the international rights charter.

'These articles allow restrictions only if they are 'necessary' in the interests of national security. And restrictions are only 'necessary' if there is a real need for them to be introduced to combat a particular mischief,' it said.

'It is axiomatic that laws should not be enacted unless there is a problem that needs to be prevented. But the paper does not identify any problems that societies or public processions have caused in this respect, beyond a few incidents that current law caters for.' Although it was acceptable for an international covenant to permit laws that restricted certain freedoms 'for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others', the laws should be specific on which 'rights and freedoms' they override.

'If this is not done, the executive has an unacceptably broad discretion to prohibit activities,' the paper added.

'Under the proposals . . . almost any public procession could be prohibited because it may cause inconvenience.' The Governor, who was fiercely critical of the plans on Wednesday, approved the Government paper, drafted by Legal Department and Security Branch officials, at a special meeting yesterday.

A source said they wanted to state the facts in a straightforward critique. 'We don't want to raise political temperatures. It was not designed in an inflammatory way.' But Chris Patten's remarks provoked anger in Beijing.

A Foreign Ministry spokesman said: 'It is the right of the Special Administrative Region to make specific laws and regulations on the basis of the Basic Law.'