Hong Kong: IBAHRI expresses concern over arrest warrants for overseas pro-democracy figures

Friday 14 July 2023

The International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI) expresses concern over the ramping up of China’s transnational repression following the issuance of arrest warrants and bounties against eight overseas Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People's Republic of China pro-democracy figures. The IBAHRI also calls on The Law Society of Hong Kong and The Hong Kong Bar Association to condemn this move.

On 3 July 2023, Hong Kong authorities issued arrest warrants against eight Hong Kong human rights defenders in self-exile, based in Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States. The accused are former lawmakers Dennis Kwok and Ted Hui, lawyer and scholar Kevin Yam, unionist Mung Siu-tat, pro-democracy activists Nathan Law, Anna Kwok and Finn Lau, and online commentator Yuan Gong-yi. All are accused of violating the controversial Hong Kong National Security Law (NSL) while in exile.

The charges, carrying a maximum life sentence, are grounded on articles 21, 23 and 29 of the NSL, namely ‘incitement to secession’, ‘incitement to subversion’ and ‘collusion with a foreign country or with external elements to endanger national security’. The NSL, passed by China’s top legislature in June 2020, has been widely criticised, including by the United Nations Human Rights Committee, as a dangerously vague and broad piece of legislation that can be easily weaponised to crush democracy advocates, not only within Hong Kong but in any part of the world. The extraterritorial reach of the NSL, provided for by articles 37 and 38, represents the long arm of China’s suppression of any form of dissent.  

Furthermore, the Hong Kong police has placed a bounty upon the heads of the eight accused, with a reward of HK$1m each for information leading to their arrest. It was announced that their assets are to be frozen and whoever supports them financially will also be in violation of the law.

IBAHRI Co-Chair and Immediate Past Secretary General of the Swedish Bar Association, Anne Ramberg Dr Jur hc, commented: ‘Offering a cross-border bounty on the head of Hong Kongers overseas poses a serious threat to their safety. It is an intolerable affront to the rule of law and a “Wild West” practice. This latest move is even more worrying considering the mounting evidence of China’s covert police stations in countries around the world. The IBAHRI calls on the Australian, UK and US governments to take concrete steps to guarantee the safety of the eight accused individuals and the ever-growing Hong Kong community seeking protection overseas.’

On 6 July 2023, The Law Society of Hong Kong and The Hong Kong Bar Association announced the receipt of complaints against one of their members for suspected violations of the NSL, thus making an indirect reference to lawyer Kevin Yam, one of the pro-democracy figures against whom the arrest warrant and bounty have been issued. Yam is also a founding convenor of the now-defunct Hong Kong Progressive Lawyers Group, a civil group of legal professionals aiming to uphold and promote the rule of law, judicial independence, democracy and human rights in Hong Kong. The Law Society of Hong Kong declared the initiation of an investigation into the allegations, and The Hong Kong Bar Association confirmed it would deal with the received complaints ‘seriously and expeditiously’, after having reaffirmed the importance of safeguarding national security.

The UN Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers and the IBA Standards for the Independence of the Legal Profession highlight the vital role of professional lawyers’ associations in upholding professional standards and ethics, protecting their members from persecution and improper restrictions and infringements, and cooperating with governmental and other institutions in the furthering of justice. Accordingly, The Law Society of Hong Kong and The Hong Kong Bar Association should be denouncing the use of bounties as an unlawful means of bringing people before courts, instead of initiating investigations before lawyers are arrested or convicted of offences. The two professional bodies should also be condemning the NSL as legislation contrary to the principle of legal certainty – one of the fundamental pillars of the rule of law – and a blatant infringement of the ‘one country, two systems’ principle enshrined in Hong Kong’s Basic Law to uphold the autonomy of Hong Kong.

IBAHRI Co-Chair Mark Stephens CBE stated: ‘Hong Kong’s latest move, aimed at gagging pro-democracy defenders in self-exile, casts a spotlight on the reach of the National Security Law. The possibility for extraterritorial application foreseen in the legislation is yet another tool of transnational repression in the hands of an authoritarian regime. It is pivotal that states which still have extradition treaties with China and Hong Kong suspend them without delay. The international community must protect the human rights defenders speciously targeted through the NSL.’


Notes to the Editor 

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For further information, please contact: the IBA Human Rights Institute at IBAHRI@int-bar.org