‘Record 3,000’ Hong Kong lawyers in silent march against controversial extradition bill
- Sector speaks out for the first time against a government proposal not directly involving judicial proceedings or a Beijing interpretation
- Four Nordic chambers of commerce join chorus of opposition against law amendment
Thousands of Hong Kong’s legal professionals, including top lawyers, took to the streets on Thursday in a silent protest against the government’s controversial extradition bill, ramping up pressure on officials to avoid rushing it through the legislature.
The march, which organisers claimed hit a record high of 3,000 people, was the fifth by the legal sector since Hong Kong’s return to Chinese rule in 1997. It was also the first time lawyers had spoken out against a government proposal not directly involving judicial proceedings or a constitutional interpretation from Beijing.
If passed, the new legislation would allow the transfer of fugitives from Hong Kong to jurisdictions with which it has no extradition deal, including mainland China.
Organisers estimated the turnout to be between 2,500 and 3,000, but police said attendance peaked at 880.
Four Nordic chambers of commerce also jointly expressed concern that the bill had been “fast tracked without the thorough consultation and full legislative scrutiny that is customary for a piece of legislation of this nature”.
The city’s last colonial governor Chris Patten meanwhile urged the government to shelve the bill, arguing it would “strike a terrible blow” to Hong Kong’s rule of law.
Leading the lawyers’ march were two former Bar Association chairmen, Martin Lee Chu-ming and Denis Chang.
Flanking them were top criminal and civil lawyers who have rarely showed up in past silent marches or public protests, including former High Court deputy judge Ambrose Ho Pui-him, Joseph Tse Wah-yuen, Nigel Kat and Nicholas Cooney.
Kat said the amendment encroached upon the “substance of the rule of law” in the city, and should not be rushed through.
“The rule of law must not be made a servant to expediency, or political demands,” he added.
Unlike in previous similar events that started from the High Court, the lawyers marched from the Court of Final Appeal to the government headquarters in Tamar, Admiralty.
Besides the legal heavyweights, some middle and junior level public prosecutors from the Department of Justice were also among participants. Prosecutors of directorial grade are generally barred from joining events of political nature.
Other marchers included legal academics and law students.
Some in the march expressed concerns over the lack of an independent judiciary across the border and argued that under the proposal, local courts only had a limited role to protect the human rights of suspects to be extradited.
Ambrose Ho said there was no guarantee of fair trials on the mainland, urging the government to shelve the bill. “Authorities have a duty to gather general consensus,” he said.
Several senior counsel, including former Bar Association chairman Ronny Wong and top criminal lawyer Lawrence Lok Ying-kam, said they would also consider joining the large protest on Sunday against the extradition bill.
At their destination in Admiralty, the lawyers stood silently facing the government headquarters for three minutes, but did not bow their heads as in previous protests.
Speaking after the march, Civic Party lawmaker Dennis Kwok claimed it was the highest turnout ever for lawyers since the handover, putting the number between 2,500 and 3,000.
“We call on this government to withdraw the extradition bill. This is the clear and almost unanimous belief of the legal profession,” Kwok said.
On lawyers no longer bowing their heads during the minutes of silence, he added: “The legal sector will not bow to the government.”
Former deputy director of public prosecutions John Reading earlier said while he understood why the government proposed the change, his main concern was that the deal, which would enable extradition on a case-by-case basis, would not be supported by bilateral treaties.
“All [existing] treaties and agreements were entered into after protracted and detailed negotiation,” said Reading, who joined the last silent march by lawyers in 2016 against Beijing’s interpretation of the Basic Law, the city’s mini-constitution. He was unable to make it for Thursday’s event, however.
“There needs to be an assurance that the requesting country can be relied on to keep their side of the bargain – that’s a little difficult if you don’t have the backup of a treaty or agreement.”
He said Taiwanese authorities had already made clear they would not ask for the transfer of Hongkonger Chan Tong-kai, wanted for the murder of his girlfriend on the self-ruled island, even if the bill was passed.
“Therefore, what’s the rush at this stage?” Reading said, adding some more time for deliberation might help resolve polarised views.
At the march, senior counsel Lawrence Lok said he was disappointed with the government’s refusal to take the legal sector’s views into account. “It is a monologue, the government talking to themselves.”
Young lawyer Irina Chan Yi-lam, who has been practising for three years, said the government had disrespected public opinion. “The government says we have misunderstood the bill, but refused to explain … It is clear they have no plan to listen to opposing views in society.”
Harry Wong, a law student at the University of Hong Kong said the bill would lead to further polarisation in society. “From a wider point of view, the bill affects Hongkonger’s trust in the central government.”
In response to the march, the Department of Justice stressed that there could be more safeguards in the proposed bill to protect suspects, apart from those covered under the existing Fugitive Offenders Ordinance.
Meanwhile, in a joint statement on Thursday, the Danish, Finnish, Norwegian, and Swedish chambers of commerce also voiced concerns over the contentious bill.
“The Nordic Chambers believe that the long-term interests of the business community would be best served by a full consultation on the subject matter of the bill, and that Hong Kong’s reputation as a stable and transparent centre for commerce and trade risks being damaged, should the bill become law without having gone through the normal legislative process,” the statement read.
“Confidence in the quality and integrity of the legal system is central to Hong Kong’s competitiveness and its reputation as an international business centre.”
Also in a statement issued on Thursday, the Bar Association, the city’s professional body for barristers, described the government’s refusal to write proposed extra safeguards into the law as “highly unsatisfactory”, as this would leave the fulfilment of clauses to the goodwill of requesting jurisdictions.
The group said there could be tricky situations for Hong Kong where its leader had an “asymmetrical relationship” with the mainland.
“The level of protection depends on the [chief executive]’s ability to negotiate with the requesting party,” the statement read.
The association argued that the only effective way to ensure that the wanted fugitive would not be subjected to human rights abuse was to require the court – rather than executive authorities – to refuse a surrender if risks were present.
In a video released on the same day, former governor Chris Patten also called on the Hong Kong government to scrap the bill.
“It doesn’t have to happen, it shouldn’t happen, and Hong Kong should carry on as a free society under the rule of law,” he said in the six-minute clip.
Patten said the extradition bill would “strike a terrible blow” to Hong Kong’s rule of law, stability, security and its position as a great international trading hub.
He also hit out at the government for putting forward “spurious” arguments in support of the bill.