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Hong Kong scales back extradition law that spooked business

[HONG KONG] Hong Kong scaled back a proposed extradition law amid concerns by opposition lawmakers and Western governments that the legislation could put people at risk of being sent to China and further erode the city's autonomy.

The government will remove nine categories including bankruptcy, securities and futures, and intellectual property from the proposed extradition law, Hong Kong Security Secretary John Lee told reporters on Tuesday.

The proposed law would still include offences like murder, polygamy and robbery that would be eligible for at least a three-year jail sentence under Hong Kong law.

The proposed law would allow for easier transfer of fugitives to Taiwan, Macau, mainland China or any jurisdiction with which Hong Kong doesn't have an extradition agreement. It was spurred by the high-profile 2018 murder of a Hong Kong resident whose boyfriend the authorities tried to prosecute for her death while they were vacationing in Taiwan.

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The man, who subsequently returned to Hong Kong, has not been sent back to the island to face charges as Hong Kong's fugitive law doesn't apply there, according to Hong Kong authorities.

'HIDING PLACE'

"The purpose of the amendment is to deal with a murder case in Taiwan and to fill in the system's deficiencies, so as to prevent Hong Kong from becoming a hiding place for criminals and have criminals receive legal sanctions," the city's Chief Executive Carrie Lam, who has defended the law, said on Tuesday.

Ms Lam said Hong Kong's government couldn't ignore the Taiwan case. The huge amount of work is "driven by empathy and sympathy," Lam said.

Though officials won't submit the amended law until April 3, it has already stoked fears that it could change Hong Kong's relationship with China by making it more susceptible to mainland political demands - and raised questions about whether people extradited to Hong Kong will face a greater risk of being handed over to Beijing.

A delegation of US politicians to Hong Kong earlier this month highlighted the proposed extradition law as a major challenge to the "one country, two systems" principle under which the Asian financial hub was handed back to Chinese rule in 1997.

The report also cited the disqualification of lawmakers from the Legislative Council and the refusal to renew a visa for a Financial Times editor last year as contributing to concerns about Hong Kong's sovereignty, as President Xi Jinping's government in Beijing expands its campaign of influence in the city.

'SWORD OF DAMOCLES'

The US last week noted that the city maintains a sufficient - though diminished - degree of autonomy under ''one country, two systems'' to justify continued special treatment, a spokesperson for the US consulate general in Hong Kong said Friday.

"This passage of the rendition-extradition mechanism will be like a Sword of Damocles hanging over Hong Kong," said Willy Lam, adjunct professor at Chinese University of Hong Kong's Centre for China Studies.

"It is highly conceivable that the CCP leadership might place a demand on Carrie Lam to extradite political prisoners or prisoners of conscience deemed to be 'criminals' under the PRC legal system," he said, referring to the Chinese Communist Party and the formal name for China.

PROMINENT CASES

Among the well-known cases that could be affected by a change in Hong Kong's extradition rules is that of property tycoon Joseph Lau, who is based in Hong Kong and considered a fugitive in neighbouring Macau after it sentenced him to prison in 2014 as part of a land corruption scandal.

Five Hong Kong booksellers who hawked politically sensitive publications disappeared in 2015, eventually reappearing on the mainland - and raising questions about whether an extradition deal would play into the hands of Chinese authorities targeting individuals for political reasons.

Chinese tycoon Xiao Jianhua was also abducted from Hong Kong's Four Seasons hotel by Chinese agents in 2017 - and hasn't resurfaced since.

REUTERS