Cheung Tze-keung and two other Hong Kong members of his gang, as well as a pair of mainlanders, will today hear the outcome of their appeal against the death sentences imposed on them for kidnapping, arms smuggling and other crimes. It is 32 years since the last execution here, but the death sentences on these three local residents for crimes committed primarily in Hong Kong shows that the SAR is still not immune from the shadow of execution. This shadow may loom still larger, judging from a controversial comment this week by the Secretary for Security, Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee. She told legislators it would be wrong to be too 'rigid' about insisting that suspects sent back to stand trial on the mainland must not be executed as part of any rendition agreement with the central government. It is true that Ms Ip had earlier stressed the importance of seeking safeguards against the death penalty and it is not clear if her subsequent remark, which angered some legislators, represents definitive policy. But if it does, this raises the prospect of Hong Kong becoming indirectly involved in the execution of some suspects, since sending them back to the mainland amounts to a certain death sentence. The administration argues that there are precedents. It cites cases in which Canada has sent back fugitives to face possible execution in the United States. But this is hardly comparable since the well-established and broadly fair US legal system gives suspects every chance to prove their innocence. The mainland does not place the same emphasis on the rights of defendants as Hong Kong. Nor are there similar safeguards to ensure a fair trial. Since Hong Kong cannot exercise any control over the trials of any fugitives sent back to the mainland in future, the least that the authorities here must do is to ensure that such people are protected from execution as a result of possibly flawed legal proceedings. That is why the suggestion about being 'more flexible' raises alarm. Worse still, it has aroused fears that this process might lead to the re-introduction of the death penalty in Hong Kong. That may not be the intention at present. But allowing prisoners sent back to the mainland to be executed would open the door to arguments that this constitutes double standards if the same fate does not apply to those convicted of major crimes in Hong Kong. Hints of flexibility in conditions for a rendition agreement could thus mark the start of a slippery slope that must be resisted.