Beijing and Hong Kong sign deal on notification procedures when residents are detained
Commitment made to informing respective governments within seven working days
Hong Kong and mainland China have secured a breakthrough deal to set up a faster notification system with a clear timetable for when residents are criminally detained by the other side.
Both committed to informing each other within seven working days when someone is being held for minor crimes, offering greater transparency on an issue that caused uproar two years ago when five booksellers mysteriously disappeared.
The agreement was signed on Thursday during the second day of Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor’s three-day maiden duty visit to Beijing.
Lam and China’s minister of public security, Zhao Kezhi, witnessed the signing by Hong Kong Secretary for Security John Lee Ka-chiu and Sun Lijun, director of the office of Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan affairs at China’s Ministry of Public Security.
“The existing mechanism has been in place since 2001,” Lee said after the ceremony. “After 16 years, we feel it is time to revise it.”
Under the new deal, either side must notify the other within seven working days of imposing “criminal compulsory measures” on a suspect such as arrests, detention or prosecution. The time limit also applies to notifications about unnatural deaths after confirmation of the person’s identity.
However, for “serious and complicated criminal cases”, a notification period of 14 working days has been specified.
For cases involving terrorist activities or those endangering national security, the time limit is even longer, at 30 working days – an arrangement which drew criticism in Hong Kong. But the old mechanism did not specify notifications be made at all for cases in these two categories.
Asked why these two types had now been included, Lee said: “The present arrangement already covers all criminal cases. This time, we are just laying out clearly how long notifications of different types should take.”
The deal also says notifications should disclose the suspected offence, the legal basis and location of the detention as well as the officer in charge of the case.
All mainland agencies authorised to impose criminal measures on Hong Kong residents are required to abide by the agreement, including public security authorities, state security authorities, customs and anti-smuggling departments and prosecutors. But the Chinese military is not covered.
The previous rules governing notifications only stated that mainland public security authorities were responsible for notifying Hong Kong police. There was no mention of the role of the state security apparatus, regional authorities or prosecutors. No notification time frame was previously specified either, though reports had suggested 14 days was an unwritten rule.
In future Shanghai and Guangdong public security authorities will be allowed to notify Hong Kong police directly rather than through the ministry in Beijing.
And Hong Kong graft-busting authority the Independent Commission Against Corruption has also been included in the mechanism, which specifies the organisation must issue notifications on any mainlanders it is holding.
The new arrangements will take effect on February 1.
All eyes fell on the reciprocal notification mechanism in 2015 when five booksellers based in Hong Kong who were linked to Mighty Current publishing company, which specialised in political gossip books about Beijing leaders, began to go missing.
They eventually turned up in the custody of mainland authorities, and appeared on state media claiming they had gone there voluntarily.
Mighty Current’s co-founder, Gui Minhai, a mainland-born, naturalised Swedish citizen, vanished from Pattaya in Thailand before turning up on the mainland. In October this year, a long-time friend said he had finally been released and reunited with his family in the Chinese city of Ningbo.
His publishing associates – Hong Kong residents Cheung Chi-ping, Lam Wing-kee and Lui Por – later went missing while on the mainland.
Another associate, Lee Po, disappeared from Hong Kong under similar circumstances. His case sparked fears he had been kidnapped by mainland agents operating in Hong Kong and that the “one country, two systems” principle, under which Hong Kong is granted a high degree of autonomy, had been eroded.
The saga led to calls for the original notification mechanism, in place since 2001, to be reviewed. That was because mainland authorities only notified Hong Kong police about three weeks after Lee disappeared, as anxiety in the city intensified over the whereabouts of the booksellers.
Lam Wing-kee on Thursday said the new deal would not help alleviate the fear held by many Hongkongers that their personal safety and freedoms could be threatened by mainland law enforcement officers operating in Hong Kong.
“It’s good for them to provide more information ... and a notification might come 10 or 20 days earlier, but by then the person has already been nabbed,” he said.
Mainland law enforcement officers are not permitted to operate in Hong Kong under the city’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law.
Activist Richard Tsoi Yiu-cheong, who campaigned for a mechanism before the initial one was established in 2001, said the effect of the new arrangements would be limited as they were still “problematic”.
“For serious criminal cases and those related to national security, the notification time frame should also be three to seven days. With the technology nowadays, 30 days is really too long for families of the suspects,” he said.
“They should also specify that the Hong Kong police need to be notified if any Hong Kong person is put under ‘administrative detention’, not just ‘criminal compulsory measures’.”
Tsoi urged the Hong Kong government to do more to protect residents’ rights on the mainland.
“It’s not just about being notified – the administration should be allowed to visit the detained suspect or even offer legal aid,” he said.
Watch: Hong Kong’s missing booksellers: a timeline of events
It was disappointing it had taken more than a year for the two governments to come up with a deal after the bookseller disappearances, he said.
Hong Kong lawmaker Lam Cheuk-ting of the Democratic Party, the city’s largest opposition party, demanded a clearer definition be set out of “national security”, saying he was worried mainland authorities would twist its meaning arbitrarily and target social activists or human rights lawyers.
He also said the 30-day time frame for offences endangering national security was too long.
“This is worrying as a lot of things could happen in 30 days. Detainees might be forced to plead guilty or confess to the crime on media shows,” Lam said. “The detainees must enjoy their basic human rights.”
Bookseller Gui appeared on state broadcaster CCTV while in custody, admitting he had voluntarily surrendered to Chinese authorities over a hit-and-run traffic incident which took place back in 2003.
Lam Cheuk-ting, a former investigator with the ICAC, said it was good the agency had been included in the notifications, as it had been investigating a lot of bribery cases involving mainland citizens.
Legislator Gary Chan Hak-kan, of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, the city’s biggest pro-establishment party, welcomed the new mechanism and said it boosted transparency. Chan also chairs the Hong Kong legislature’s security panel.
While he had hoped the seven-day time frame would be shorter, particularly regarding arrests in the Guangdong area, Chan said the longer period was “understandable” for cases concerning national security as those tended to be more complicated.
Hong Kong’s Security Bureau told the Post earlier that mainland authorities sent 1,560 notifications to the Hong Kong government last year, 653 more than in 2015. In the first six months of this year, 858 notifications were made.