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Hong Kong moves towards tougher security law despite concerns

Pair of surveillance cameras are seen along the Tsim Sha Tsui waterfront as skyline buildings stand across Victoria Harbor in Hong Kong

By James Pomfret and Jessie Pang

HONG KONG (Reuters) -A public consultation period for a new Hong Kong national security law closes on Wednesday amid concerns that the legislation, which authorities want to put in place soon, will further erode freedoms in the financial hub.

The law, known as Article 23, is aimed at addressing what officials call deficiencies or loopholes in the national security regime, which was bolstered just four years ago by another national security law imposed directly by China.

It will target crimes including treason, theft of state secrets, espionage, sabotage, sedition and "external interference" including from foreign governments. The Hong Kong legislature, which is dominated by pro-Beijing lawmakers, is expected to approve it.

The law comes as the former British colony is trying to improve its image, and economy, amid international criticism of a China-led crackdown on freedoms and dissent which has sent many pro-democracy politicians and activists into jail or exile.

Several lawyers and activists say the law criminalises basic human rights such as freedom of expression.

"Many of these proposed provisions are vague and criminalize people's peaceful exercises of human rights, including the rights to freedom of association, assembly, expression and the press," a group of 80 civil society groups, including British-based Hong Kong Watch, wrote in a joint letter.

Hong Kong authorities, however, say the new law is necessary as "threats posed by external forces and local terrorism remain", adding that national security is the "fundamental prerequisite for the survival and development of a state".

The government also said Article 23 would give "full and prudent consideration" to the United Nations' International Covenant on Civil & Political Rights (ICCPR)".

British Foreign Secretary David Cameron said the proposals did not uphold Hong Kong's obligations under the Sino-British Joint Declaration, which returned Hong Kong from British to Chinese rule more than 25 years ago.

"They will have a negative impact on the people of Hong Kong in their exercise of their rights and freedoms," he said. "I strongly urge the Hong Kong SAR Government to re-consider their proposals."

HARSHER PENALTIES

A previous attempt to enact Article 23 in 2003 was shelved after an estimated 500,000 people protested against it. This time, there have been no large-scale protests and most public submissions so far support the legislation.

Authorities have proposed harsher penalties for "seditious intention" and "possession of seditious publication", an addition some lawyers say is concerning, as many journalists, activists and media outlets in recent years have been charged with sedition before being jailed or shut down.

"The United Nations Committee of human rights experts already concluded in 2022 that the sedition provisions should be repealed and Hong Kong should refrain from using them to suppress the expression of critical and dissenting opinions," said Mark Daly, a Hong Kong based human rights lawyer.

So far, 174 people and five companies have been charged under the 2020 national security law. The Center for Asian Law at Georgetown University in the United States said the new legislation could worsen what it called a "crisis of confidence" Hong Kong's legal and political institutions.

The Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA) said in its submission that "sedition should be abolished", adding the scope and definition of what constitute "state secrets" was very broad and vague, especially in relation to newly added categories that include economic and social development.

The Law Society of Hong Kong, in a submission, supported the need for new laws but also suggested the government consider adding a "public interest" defence to the offence of leaking state secrets, and to clarify what might constitute state secrets, including commercial secrets.

"Commercial sector requires certainty in the business environment it is operating in," it wrote.

(Reporting by James Pomfret and Jessie Pang, additional reporting by Kylie MacLellan; Editing by Miral Fahmy and Sharon Singleton)