A new special court will be set up in Hong Kong to try national security cases whose judges must have no right of abode in any foreign country, according to reports.
The court’s establishment will add fuel to rising tensions over China’s plan to impose a new national security law for the autonomous city, with protests against the legislation expected in the days ahead.
More details of China’s plans for the law are filtering out from the Great Hall of the People, as the National People’s Congress (NPC) deputies meet for this year’s parliamentary session in Beijing.
Maggie Chan, a NPC delegate and political heavyweight of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, the city’s largest pro-Beijing political outfit, has voiced support for Beijing’s bid to tame the former British colony through legal means.
The NPC’s confirmation of the legislation, to be superimposed on Hong Kong’s common law system and independent judiciary to criminalize secession, terrorism and foreign meddling, has jolted the city and its financial markets.
Chan, a barrister by training, is intent on setting the state security agenda. Her follow-up proposal is for a standalone court to hear related cases outside the city’s legal system.
It emerged at a breakout panel discussion on Monday attended by Han Zheng, a standing member of the Communist Party’s Politburo and a deputy premier who is the highest state leader overseeing Hong Kong affairs.
Chan told Han that foreign judges such as those from the United Kingdom, Australia and Canada who sit on the bench of Hong Kong’s Court of Final Appeal must not adjudicate cases in the new court.
She said only local legal experts who are not residents of any foreign country can interpret the new law and deliver judgements.
NPC chairman Li Zhanshu also vowed to expedite the process for deputies to vote the bill into law and apply it to Hong Kong.
Sources privy to the discussion also quoted Chan as saying that the Hong Kong government should establish a national security commission to steer the city through the current situation and that the city’s police force should also set up a special branch to enforce the law and tackle specific threats.
She reportedly said that anyone stoking tension and plotting secession and terrorist attacks should be swiftly tried and subject to “enhanced sentencing” to deter others.
“Acts of secession, subversion, terrorism or conspiring with foreign influence in connection with Hong Kong affairs should be categorized as ‘high crimes’ and offenders must not be let go lightly,” said Chan.
Observers say Chan could again be conveying the ideas from top leaders about the specifics and implementation mechanism of the impending law, even though its clauses and other details are yet to be set out by the NPC.
The law will also enable Chinese state agents to operate a base in the special administrative region to carry out missions, though a gazette from the NPC on the outlines of the law is devoid of any detail on the matter.
In response, Hong Kong’s Civic Party, a leading pro-democracy party that represents the legal sector, has questioned if the new court would be above the Court of Final Appeal and if a defendant’s right to apply for leave to appeal all the way up to the city’s highest appellate court will be curtailed simply because a case concerns China’s national security.
But Chan and other pro-Beijing figures say the law is needed to safeguard against foreign forces and local accomplices as the city teeters on the brink of a repeat of last year’s vandalism and anarchy ignited by a China extradition bill. Sporadic clashes between rioters and police erupted again over the past weekend.
Proponents of the new law say the alarming spike in the amount of explosives seized by the police since the outbreak of protests in June 2019 is indication of local terrorism surfacing in a city usually lauded for its low crime rate.
After the news about the law, Hong Kong security minister John Lee revealed his concerns about the heightened risk of a possible “terrorist” attack.
Writing in his blog, Lee said that in light of the ten-plus cases involving making or detonating bombs investigated by the police in the past 12 months, the government was assessing whether to raise the city’s terrorist attack response level to “serious.”
Lee wrote that he had instructed the police to review contingency plans and stay operation-ready, but he stopped short of saying the city was at risk of an imminent attack.
Lawmakers from the democratic camp suspect that Lee’s perceived as alarmist remarks could be another pretext for Beijing to curb the city’s autonomy and liberties.
In a statement condemning Sunday’s protest against Beijing’s national security law, the Hong Kong government said a resurgence of riots would only “reinforce the urgency of the legislation.”