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First arrests in HK under just-passed national security law

Hong Kong

HONG Kong police fired water cannon and tear gas and arrested more than 300 people on Wednesday, including nine suspected of violating the national security law, as protesters took to the streets in defiance of sweeping security legislation introduced by China that critics said is aimed at snuffing out dissent.

Beijing unveiled the details of the much-anticipated law late on Tuesday after weeks of uncertainty, pushing China's freest city and one of the world's most glittering financial hubs onto a more authoritarian path.

As thousands of protesters gathered downtown for an annual rally marking the anniversary of the former British colony's handover to China in 1997, riot police used pepper spray and fired pellets as they made arrests after crowds spilled into the streets chanting "resist till the end" and "Hong Kong independence".

"I'm scared of going to jail but for justice I have to come out today, I have to stand up," said one 35-year-old man who gave his name as Seth.

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The new law will punish crimes of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces with up to life in prison, see mainland security agencies in Hong Kong for the first time and allow for extradition to the mainland for trial.

China's parliament adopted it in response to protests last year triggered by fears that Beijing was stifling the city's freedoms, guaranteed by a "one country, two systems" formula agreed when it returned to Chinese rule.

Earlier on Wednesday, police cited the law for the first time in confronting protesters.

"You are displaying flags or banners/chanting slogans/or conducting yourselves with an intent such as secession or subversion, which may constitute offences under the . . . national security law," police said in a message displayed on a purple banner.

Authorities in Beijing and Hong Kong have repeatedly said the legislation is aimed at a few "troublemakers" and will not affect rights and freedoms, nor investor interests.

But critics feared it is aimed at ending the pro-democracy opposition, and will crush the freedoms that are seen as key to Hong Kong's success as a financial centre.

Leading Hong Kong lawyers are warning of a stark new era of mainland justice and the possibility of Chinese agents whisking suspects to the mainland for trial and prison, which has alarmed some in the legal, business and diplomatic communities.

Both Asian and Western envoys are watching developments closely, fearing their own nationals in the city could now be at greater risk, particularly as tensions spike between Beijing and Western governments over trade, human rights and the handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

The prospect of formalised renditions is evoking memories of the disappearance of a mainland tycoon from a hotel in the city, as well others from Hong Kong in recent years, including a bookseller who said he had been abducted by mainland agents and is now in Taiwan.

Given its sweeping but vague powers, the law eroded the high degree of autonomy, freedoms and judicial independence promised to Hong Kong at the 1997 handover, the Hong Kong Bar Association said.

Other lawyers described "the ground shifting beneath our feet", saying it was unclear how the laws, drafted in Beijing, could be aligned with Hong Kong's human rights protections.

The laws, for example, make several references to "state secrets", linking their theft to the crime of colluding with foreign governments, as well as providing for court cases behind closed doors and without juries.

While it grants the city's leader the power to certify to a court that something is a secret, much greater clarity is needed, lawyers and diplomats said.

One senior Hong Kong barrister urged the Hong Kong government to clarify the many grey areas.

"Whoever drafted it was not apparently cognisant of common law principles, so it is proving very hard to fully grasp at this point," the barrister said. "There are likely to be all kinds of devils in the details." REUTERS

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