Hong Kong proposes life terms for treason and insurrection in new bill

HONG KONG (AP) — Hong Kong unveiled a new national security law Friday that proposes life sentences for crimes such as treason and rebellion. deepening concerns about the further erosion of the city’s freedoms after Beijing imposed a similar law four years ago that virtually wiped out dissent.

The proposed law will expand the government’s power in stamping out future challenges to its rule, including targeting espionage, external interference and protection of state secrets. Stricter penalties will be imposed on individuals who collaborate with external forces to carry out certain illegal acts, such as sabotage and sedition, compared to those who do so on their own.

Under pressure from Hong Kong leader John Lee to complete the legislative process “at full speed”, lawmakers will begin their debate on Friday in a meeting specially organized to speed up the process. The bill is expected to pass easily, possibly within weeks, in a legislative session packed with Beijing loyalists electoral overhaul.

Legislature President Andrew Leung told reporters that the process was accelerated because the bill was necessary to safeguard national security.

“If you look at other countries, they implemented it in a day, two weeks, three weeks… So why can’t Hong Kong do it in a fast way? Just tell me,” the pro-Beijing politician said.

Critics have warned that the legislation will make Hong Kong’s legal framework increasingly similar to that of mainland China, contributing to a decline in civil liberties that were promised to remain intact for 50 years when the former British colony closed in 1997. returned to Chinese rule.

However, the government pointed to the massive anti-government protests that rocked the city in 2019 to justify its need, insisting it would only affect “an extremely small minority” of disloyal residents.

Under the new law, inciting a foreign country to forcibly invade China would be punishable with a maximum penalty of life imprisonment as a treason crime. Committing violence while being reckless enough to endanger the public safety of the city as a whole can be considered rioting.

The government also proposed stricter penalties if residents collude with foreign forces to commit certain crimes, rather than doing so independently.

If they damage public infrastructure, including the airport and other means of public transport, with the intention of endangering national security, the maximum penalty is 20 years’ imprisonment. But if they collude with an outside force, they can be sentenced to life in prison.

Similarly, those who commit an offense of sedition face a prison sentence of seven years, but colluding with an outside force to carry out such acts increases that sentence to ten years.

The expanded definition of external forces includes foreign governments and political parties, international organizations, and corporations whose directors are required to act in accordance with the wishes of a foreign government.

Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law, requires the city to enact a national security law. But an earlier attempt to pass a version of the law led to a massive street protest that attracted half a million people, and the legislation was shelved.

Major protests against the current bill are unlikely to be repeated due to the chilling effect of the 2020 law. After it was enacted to suppress the 2019 protests, many of the city’s leading pro-democracy activists have been arrested and others fled abroad. Dozens of social groups have been disbandedand outspoken media such as Apple Daily and Stand News have been too to block.

During a month-long public comment period that ended last week, 98.6% of positions received by officials showed support, and only 0.72% opposed the proposals, the government said. The rest merely contain questions or opinions that cannot reflect the authors’ position, it added.

But business people and journalists do fear expressed that a broadly worded law could criminalize their daily work, especially when the proposed definition of state secrets covers matters related to economic, social and technological developments.

Under the bill, maximum sentences for state secret crimes range from three to 10 years. The government has attempted to address concerns by including a public interest defense in the proposal under specific conditions.

John Burns, an honorary professor of politics and public administration at the University of Hong Kong, said it remains to be seen how the courts will interpret the extent to which disclosure “manifestly outweighs” non-disclosure.

If the bill passes as introduced, it will likely have a chilling effect on local groups, Burns said, especially for political groups and public policy lobbying groups that have benefited from connections to their overseas counterparts.

“At least initially, I expect they will be particularly cautious about expanding ties with similar groups abroad,” he said.

Officials also planned to impose stricter measures on those suspected of endangering security. Those arrested but released on bail may face a “restriction of movement order” that limits the places they can live and enter, and also prevents them from communicating with certain people.

Authorities would be given the power to target specific absconders with sanctions, such as preventing people from taking care of them financially, hiring, leasing or starting a business with them.

Prisoners convicted of national security offenses will also not receive a reduced sentence until authorities are confident that an early release will not pose national security risks. This would apply to all national security prisoners, even those whose sentences were imposed before the bill.

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