By Greg Torode
HONG KONG (Reuters) - Tens of thousands of people are expected to take to the streets of Hong Kong on Sunday in a bid to block changes to the Chinese-ruled city's extradition laws, which could pave the way for fugitives wanted by mainland China to be sent across the border for trial for the first time.
Hong Kong residents as well as foreign and Chinese nationals living or traveling through the global financial hub would all be at risk if they are wanted on the mainland.
After weeks of broadening local and international pressure, debate in Hong Kong's parliament on the so-called Fugitive Offenders Ordinance amendment bill is due to start on Wednesday. With pro-establishment political forces now dominant in the Legislative Council, the bill is expected to be passed by the end of the month. Hundreds of lawyers marched in a rare protest on Thursday.
What does the extradition bill involve?
The Hong Kong government first launched the proposals in February, proposing sweeping changes that would simplify case-by-case extraditions of criminal suspects to countries beyond the 20 with which Hong Kong has existing extradition treaties.
It explicitly allows extraditions from Hong Kong to greater China - including the mainland, Taiwan and Macau - for the first time, closing what Hong Kong government officials have repeatedly described as a "loophole" that they claim has allowed the city to become a haven for criminals from the mainland.
Hong Kong's leader would start and finally approve an extradition following a request from a foreign jurisdiction but only after court hearings, including any possible appeals. The bill removes Legislative Council oversight of extradition arrangements, however.
Why is the Hong Kong government pushing it now?
Officials initially seized on the murder last year of a young Hong Kong woman holidaying in Taiwan to justify swift changes. Police say her boyfriend confessed on his return to Hong Kong, and he is now in jail on lesser money-laundering charges.
But Taiwan authorities have strongly opposed the bill which they say could leave Taiwanese citizens exposed in Hong Kong, and have vowed to refuse taking back the murder suspect if the bill is passed.
A long-forgotten issue, the need for an eventual extradition deal with the mainland was acknowledged by government officials and experts ahead of Hong Kong's handover from British to Chinese rule in 1997 under the "one country, two systems" model. As part of the broader freedoms the formula guarantees, the city maintains a separate and independent legal system. Over the years since, little progress has been made in discreet talks with justice and security officials on the mainland, where the ruling Communist Party still controls the courts.
How strong is opposition to the bill?
Concern about the amendments has spiraled in recent weeks, taking in pro-business and pro-Beijing elements usually loath to publicly contradict the Hong Kong or Chinese governments. Senior Hong Kong judges have privately expressed alarm, and mainland commercial lawyers based in Hong Kong have echoed their fears, saying the mainland system cannot be trusted to meet even basic standards of judicial fairness. Local lawyers' groups have issued detailed submissions to the government, hoping to force a postponement.
Authorities have repeatedly stressed that judges will serve as "gatekeepers" or guardians for extradition requests. But some judges say privately that China’s increasingly close relationship with Hong Kong and the limited scope of extradition hearings will leave them exposed to criticism and political pressure from Beijing.
Schools, lawyers and church groups have joined human rights groups to protest the measures. Following a brawl in the legislature over the bill, the government moved to fast-track the bill by scrapping established legislative procedures that stoked outrage amongst critics.
Foreign political and diplomatic pressure over human rights concerns is rising, too. As well as recent statements from U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his British and German counterparts, some 11 European Union envoys met Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam to formally protest.
"It's a proposal, or a set of proposals, which strike a terrible blow ... against the rule of law, against Hong Kong's stability and security, against Hong Kong's position as a great international trading hub," Hong Kong's last British governor, Chris Patten, said on Thursday.
With organizers hoping for more than 300,000 people to protest on Sunday, some opposition politicians say the issue now represents a turning point for the city's free status.
Will the government drop or postpone the bill?
Lam and her key officials have been strident in defending the bill both publicly and privately, stressing the need for action in the Taiwan murder and the need to plug a "loophole". They also insist broad safeguards mean that anyone at risk of political or religious persecution or who faces torture will not be extradited. Likewise, no one who faces the death penalty will be extradited.
While they have raised the threshold to serious crimes only, and excluded nine specific economic offences, there is no hint yet that they will actually scrap the plan, or postpone it to allow for more extensive consultations given the potentially grave repercussions.
Chinese officials have also now publicly supported the Hong Kong government in the face of diplomatic pressure, saying it has become a sovereign issue.
Some opposition politicians believe the local government position is finally wavering, however, and Beijing may allow it to climb down if enough people hit the streets.
(Reporting by Greg Torode, James Pomfret and Jessie Pang. Editing by Nick Macfie)