New Hong Kong law: Treason can invite life sentence

The government of Hong Kong has unveiled a preliminary version of a new national security law, referred to as Article 23, aiming to enhance control over the city and align its regulations more closely with mainland China. This domestic legislation focuses on defining and punishing offenses related to national security. The draft, released on Friday, suggests severe penalties, including life imprisonment for certain crimes like insurrection and treason, and extends the permissible detention period without charges from 48 hours to two weeks.

Under the proposed law, possessing a seditious publication could lead to a three-year jail term, granting the police authority to search and seize such material. The legislation also introduces offenses like “foreign interference” and collusion with foreign forces, increasing the sedition sentence from two to seven years, escalating to 10 if committed in collusion with foreign entities.

While allowing limited public interest defenses in cases like revealing state secrets, the bill acknowledges Hong Kong’s traditional freedoms. Additionally, the police must seek magistrate approval to detain someone beyond the existing 48-hour limit.

Debates on the law commenced soon after the draft’s release, and swift approval is anticipated in the largely non-oppositional parliament. Security Secretary Chris Tang emphasized the law’s necessity to address loopholes in Hong Kong’s national security system, with Chief Executive John Lee urging expedited processing.

The law’s genesis dates back to Hong Kong’s 1997 handover from British to Chinese rule, as outlined in its mini-constitution, but a previous attempt in 2003 faced community resistance. The Chinese central government imposed the National Security Law (NSL) on Hong Kong in 2021 due to the delay in enacting Article 23.

While the proposed law mirrors the NSL in scope and detail, the latter will continue to take precedence. Legal groups, numbering over 80, expressed concerns about the new law’s potential erosion of due process and fair trial rights in an open letter on February 19. Businesspeople and journalists fear it could criminalize their daily activities, especially regarding state secrets related to economic, social, and technological developments.

Despite public consultations with overwhelmingly positive feedback, the law has faced criticism from the UK Foreign Secretary, David Cameron, which the government dismissed as “maliciously smearing and attacking Hong Kong’s human rights, freedoms, and rule of law” last month.

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