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Hong Kong’s national security law is finally here, and it can change the city forever

While officials had previously suggested the penalties would be milder than in China, the maximum sentence for each of these four major crimes – secession, exhumation, terrorism and co-operation with foreign forces – is life imprisonment.

The right to a jury trial may be suspended under certain circumstances, cases may be heard in secret, and foreign nationals in Hong Kong may be deported if they are suspected of violating the law, regardless of conviction. The national security law rejects any existing Hong Kong law if there is a conflict.

The law also extends Beijing’s direct control over the city, creating a new national security committee that will include a Beijing-appointed adviser, and a “National Security Office” directly under the Beijing government, which has extensive powers to prosecute Hong Kongers is considered to have committed particularly unequal offenses.

Hong Kong and Beijing officials have argued that the law is necessary and delayed, and promised to affect only a small minority of Hong Kongers while restoring “stability and prosperity” to the city.

“The national security law is an important step to end the chaos and violence that has occurred over the past few months,” Lam, the city’s chief executive, said Wednesday. “It’s a law that has been introduced to keep Hong Kong safe. The legislation is legal, constitutional and reasonable.”

Hong Kong CEO Carrie Lam (C) speaks to guests after a flag-raising ceremony to mark China's National Day celebrations early in the morning in Hong Kong on July 1, 2020.

Cooling effect

Before it even came into force, the law had begun to have a sharp effect, with the dissolution of many political parties, shops removing anti-government preface, and people deleting social media accounts and old posts.

This is likely to accelerate, as criminal offenses under the law are widespread and widespread, without any certainty as to what actions will be considered illegal until criminal prosecution is instituted.

For example, the act of inciting, aiding or abetting secession may cover most of the statements related to Hong Kong independence. At recent rallies, protesters could be heard regularly chanting that this was the “only way out,” and waving flags promoting separatism. The minimum sentence for such crimes is five years in prison.

In a meeting Tuesday with senior police commanders, they were told that anyone seen waving the independence flag or cheering in support of independence should be arrested, a police source told CNN. In addition, the source said anyone who checked and found that there were independence flags in their possession would be arrested.

Subversion and terrorism are also defined particularly broadly, with the latter involving “dangerous activities that seriously endanger health, safety or security” in order to “intimidate the public to pursue the political agenda.”

If widely applied, it could reclassify anti-government protests as the first city last year – which often turned violent, with clashes between protesters and police, and vandalism of public property – as terrorism, exactly how protests were often described in Chinese media. state.

In particular, the law penalizes “sabotaging means of transport (and) transport facilities”, or “severely disrupting or sabotaging electronic control systems” in connection with transport, which may be interpreted to include vandalizing subway stations or blocking of roads and buses.

The maximum sentence for serious terrorist offenses is life imprisonment, with a minimum sentence of 10 years. Those found guilty of lesser and more serious offenses may face a minimum of five years in prison.

Foreigners threatened

While the biggest impact of the law will be on Hong Kongers, it also includes numerous provisions that could affect the way foreign entities, in particular the media and NGOs, operate in the city.

The law stipulates that anyone who “directly or indirectly receives guidance, control, funding or other types of support from a foreign country or an institution, organization or individual” may be guilty of an offense if they follow certain actions that are considered hostile. to national security.

They include lobbying for sanctions against Hong Kong or Chinese officials – such as those recently imposed by Washington on this much-needed legislation – “undermining” the election in Hong Kong, “seriously undermining the wording and enforcement of laws or policies” in the city. , or “provocation by illegal means of hatred between the inhabitants of Hong Kong against the Central Government of the People.”

In China, people have been prosecuted for leaking “state secrets” to the media, government and foreign organizations, something the new Hong Kong law also criminalizes, making it more difficult for journalists and NGOs. foreigners to operate in the city.

One of the tasks of the Office for the Protection of National Security, which reports directly to Beijing, will also be “the administration of foreign bodies (bodies) and international organizations in (Hong Kong), as well as non-governmental organizations and news agencies.” foreign “.

Currently, Hong Kong has a generous visa policy for journalists, who are classified as regular foreign workers and are not subject to the strictest rules seen in China. It is also easy for NGOs to operate in Hong Kong, with human rights organizations, working groups and press freedom groups fighting to operate in China using the city as a base.

Non-permanent residents in Hong Kong may be evicted from the city, regardless of whether they are convicted or suspected of violating the law.

Chinese (pre) and Hong Kong flags are flown during a flag-raising ceremony to mark China's National Day celebrations early in the morning in Hong Kong on July 1, 2020.

Judicial changes

One of the biggest controversies that led to the passage of the law was the creation of a new trial panel dedicated to national security issues, which will be appointed directly by the Chief Executive Officer.

Legal analysts have warned that this could undermine the independence of the judiciary, as it enables the government to select judges who are potentially sympathetic to specific issues.

“A person will not be appointed as a judge to adjudicate a case concerning a criminal offense that endangers national security if he or she has made a statement or acted in any way that endangers national security,” the law said.

He adds that jury trials can be suspended when deemed necessary, instead of being heard by a panel of judges.

Beyond that, certain cases can also be handed over directly to the Chinese criminal prosecution authorities, with the Office for the Protection of National Security taking the lead, enforcing Chinese law and standards.

The office “will launch an investigation into the case, the Supreme People’s Prosecutor will appoint a prosecuting authority to pursue it, and the Supreme People’s Court will appoint a court to try him,” the law said.

When you exercise this power, the members of the Office “will not be subject to the jurisdiction of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region”, and the city police are obliged to assist in their duties and prevent anyone from obstructing them.

It is unclear whether such cases will be transferred to the continent, or whether they will be processed in Hong Kong by Chinese prosecutors. The suggestion of extradition to China is what triggered mass anti-government protests last year.

China has a high degree of conviction, especially in national security matters, and has been regularly criticized for politicized criminal prosecution, in which defendants are denied access to a lawyer.

Comes what comes next?

For weeks, Hong Kong officials and the central government in Beijing have assured the public that the law will be implemented selectively and affects only a small number of people.

After her passage on Tuesday, a Hong Kong government spokesman you again that the law “aims at an extremely small minority of violators, while life and property, as well as the various fundamental rights and freedoms legitimate, enjoyed by the vast majority of citizens, will be protected.”

“There is nothing for the citizens of Hong Kong to worry about exercising these legitimate rights,” he added.

Whether this is true remains to be seen, and may not be known for months, until they bring the first prosecutions under the law. But the frightening effect already seen this week suggests that the consequences of the law will disappear beyond individual issues.

Hong Kong has long been known as a “protest city”, with a vibrant opposition movement, unblemished media and dynamic public discourse. The national security law would appear to be aimed at all of this, and could reformulate the city forever.

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