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Hong Kong protests

Beijing to gain sweeping power under Hong Kong security law

Special session called for June 28-30 for possible vote

Chinese state-security agencies would be able to exercise jurisdiction over "certain circumstances," according to Xinhua News Agency   © Reuters

HONG KONG -- China's new security law for Hong Kong will let Beijing overrule the city's legal system by giving the central government jurisdiction over cases under "certain circumstances," according to details released Saturday.

While the exact wording remains unknown, the draft legislation stipulates that judges handling national security court cases shall be appointed by Hong Kong's leader, rather than by the city's chief justice, who normally assigns judges for criminal cases, Beijing's official Xinhua News Agency reported.

City authorities would be responsible for enforcement of the law, but Beijing would be able to exercise jurisdiction over a "very small number of cases," the report said.

The key features of the law were revealed after a three-day, closed-door meeting of the National People's Congress Standing Committee, China's top decision-making body.

The committee will hold a special session between June 28 and 30 where it may vote on the new legislation, according to local media reports in mainland China and Hong Kong, on Sunday.

The law may take effect in Hong Kong before the annual anti-government rally by pro-democracy organization on July 1 -- though expected to be banned by the police on "health concerns" -- and the upcoming Legislative Council election in September.

The meeting that ended Saturday was the first top-level session since Beijing approved the plan to impose a national security law on Hong Kong -- bypassing the city's legislature -- on May 28 during its annual parliamentary session. The proposed legislation will outlaw activities involving "separatism, subversion, terrorism and foreign interference."

In case of any ambiguity over the law, the power to interpret the legislation will also rest with the NPC Standing Committee, the report said, giving Beijing final say on the law's implementation.

A new security commission reporting to the central government will be established in Hong Kong to advise on national security policies, gather intelligence and prosecute cases, according to the law's framework. It will be chaired by the city's chief executive. Meanwhile, the Department of Justice and the Hong Kong Police Force will set up special units to enforce the new security protocols.

The Group of Seven leading economies and the European Union have urged China to reconsider the plan, citing violations of the promised autonomy to Hong Kong as part of the 1997 British handover to China. Last month, Washington said it would move to revoke the preferential trade treatment it extends to Hong Kong over the proposed law.

The security law represents Beijing's response to months of political protests and clashes between demonstrators and police in the city, touched off by a proposed extradition law that would have allowed criminal suspects to be extradited to mainland China and other places without such an agreement. Although the government withdrew the plan last year, Beijing's move to assert jurisdiction over some security law cases suggests suspects could be still tried in mainland courts, which are directly under Communist Party control.

Critics fear the law would curtail civil liberties in the city underpinned by the "one country, two systems" principle, which grants the city a certain degree of autonomy such as free speech and an independent judiciary. About 98% of journalists in the city oppose the security legislation, a recent poll by Hong Kong Journalists Association showed.

Half of Hongkongers now believe that the city has already entered "one country, one system," according to a survey published on Friday by the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute.

The result reflects how "public confidence has dropped so much over the past 12 months [and] negative feeling about almost anything about China and Hong Kong government," Robert Chung Ting-yiu, the institute president, told the Nikkei Asian Review.

Tam Yiu-chung, Hong Kong's sole member on the NPC Standing Committee, told local media Saturday that national security crimes are likely to carry sentences of three to 10 years imprisonment and that the law would not be retroactive.

Jerome Cohen, New York University professor and co-director of the school's U.S.-Asia Law Institute, said in a blog post Saturday that much remained uncertain about the law and its implementation.

"How are the NSL (national security law) crimes being defined? By what criteria will the CE select judges and why is this special system necessary?" the veteran Sinologist wrote after the details of the legislation was revealed. The law lacks necessary protections and safeguards on human rights and liberties which are supposed to be guaranteed under existing Hong Kong laws, he suggested. "The Handover has clearly become the Takeover."

Additional reporting by Nikkei Asian Review chief business news correspondent Kenji Kawase.

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