(Bloomberg) – Veteran human rights lawyer Michael Vidler decided it was too dangerous to work in Hong Kong at a time when a judge appointed to handle national security law cases involved offering a legal support for democracy activists could be a crime.

Judge Stanley Chan cited a contact card naming two law firms, including Vidler’s, as evidence of the organization of the 2019 anti-government camp in his judgment for an unlawful assembly conviction earlier this year. As to whether the named attorneys were “accomplices” in the crime, Chan said he could not comment.

“It was deeply disturbing to me as a lawyer to be, in essence, charged with incitement to crime because a potential client had a piece of paper on him that listed my firm as a source of advice and guidance. ‘legal assistance,’ said Vidler, who previously defended now imprisoned democracy activist Joshua Wong and won a landmark appeal that recognized spousal visas for same-sex couples.

“There was no longer room for my firm to continue its public interest litigation work,” he added, “without an increasing risk of serious adverse consequences for my team and myself.”

Vidler left Hong Kong in May after nearly two decades working in the former British colony and closed his law firm shortly thereafter. His experience reflects growing concern that Hong Kong’s rule of law, for decades a fundamental pillar of its position as an international financial center, is increasingly influenced by the mainland where the Communist Party controls the courts.

A government spokesperson said Hong Kong’s rule of law remained “strong and robust” after security legislation Beijing imposed on the city in June 2020, crediting it with restoring a “peaceful environment and steady”. The spokesperson said Chan made his comments outside the context of a national security law case and denied implying that a lawyer could be criminally liable for simply providing legal services.

Authorities have stepped up pressure on lawyers who defended some of the 10,000 protesters arrested during the 2019 unrest. Prominent lawyer Margaret Ng was arrested for her work with a fund providing financial assistance to activists, as police reported other lawyers to their professional bodies for misconduct discovered in this investigation. She has denied the charges and a court hearing is set for September 19.

Former Hong Kong Bar Association head and human rights lawyer Paul Harris left the city in March after being questioned by National Security Police.

“Any deterioration of Hong Kong’s strong rule of law tradition by crowding out rule of law related institutions will not be conducive to the security of international investment and finance,” said Michael Davis, a law professor and of international affairs at OP Jindal Global University in India and former professor of law at the University of Hong Kong. “Presumably, investors who continue despite these increasing limitations will demand a higher premium on their investments, coupled with higher risks.”

The changes hit a central pillar of China’s 50-year pledge to maintain Hong Kong’s liberal institutions and capitalist markets until at least 2047 under a framework called “one country, two systems.” The city will celebrate the midpoint of this guarantee on July 1, during a ceremony which President Xi Jinping could attend.

Hong Kong lawyers operate in an environment where many wonder whether even acknowledgment of the defendant’s achievements might run counter to security law. The stakes are high, as authorities have not dropped any of the charges against at least 114 people prosecuted so far in national security cases.

Keith Richburg, head of the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents’ Club, said the council suspended its long-running human rights press awards earlier this year after lawyers told it police would investigate. likely on the organization for “aiding, promoting, or celebrating sedition,” according to a recording of a meeting with local reporters to explain the decision. Among the winners was Stand News, which closed in December after police arrested seven people linked to the publication of a colonial-era sedition law.

“You’re not going to get a fair hearing before an NSL judge,” Richburg told a lawyer, referring to national security law.

“How many people arrested because of sedition or national security law got away with it? ” he added. “Do you think they get a fair trial in Hong Kong and China? Arresting people means you are guilty. Richburg declined to comment further.

Human rights reports

The Asia Publishers Society, also based in Hong Kong, last week awarded a human rights reporting award to Chinese-language publication Ming Pao for a series on the legal risks of commemorating the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. It is not known whether Stand News submitted any nominations for the SOPA awards. SOPA did not respond to questions.

Bloomberg is currently represented on the board of FCCHK and the editorial board of SOPA.

The National Security Law changed the city’s legal system in several ways: it allowed the city leader to choose which city judges can handle security law cases, diminishing impartiality and independence of the judiciary, and allowed some cases to be tried on the other side of the border. , in vaguely defined circumstances – a power that has yet to be exercised.

Perhaps most importantly, it changed bail rules by removing the presumption of innocence, a precedent that saw dozens of defendants jailed for more than a year without trial and has since been extended to other crimes with a security element.

So far, the four security law cases that have gone to trial have resulted in guilty verdicts, the only defendant who fought the charges was denied a reduced sentence in part because he chose not to plead guilty. Those findings likely deterred the defendants from trying to clear their names, said a veteran lawyer, who asked not to be named due to the sensitivity of the matter.

These changes have already had an impact on Hong Kong’s international reputation. Two British judges withdrew from the city’s Court of Final Appeal earlier this year after the UK government said their role risked ‘legitimizing oppression’, while seven US lawmakers called on President Joe Biden to sanction judges and prosecutors handling national security cases for allowing Beijing to crack down on freedoms.

Hong Kong’s global ranking on the World Justice Project’s Rule of Law Index fell three places to 19th out of 139 countries surveyed in 2021, after holding the No. past four years, with a decrease in the legal liability of government officials, one of the major downfall factors. The city’s legal system still ranks fifth in the region.

Officials took advantage of a symposium hosted by Hong Kong’s Justice Department last month to defend the city’s legal system, with China’s top local diplomat, Liu Guangyuan, saying that “countries that claim to promote democracy” are those who undermine the rule of law in the world by interfering in the affairs of others.

“Hong Kong has an independent judiciary and fundamental rights and freedoms fully protected by the Basic Law,” said Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s outgoing chief executive, at the event. “That’s why Hong Kong is often the preferred choice for multinational cooperation in legal services and dispute resolution.”

Two-way system

Despite fears for the legal protection of civil liberties, four lawyers who are currently practicing or have recently worked in Hong Kong said there seems to be an expectation in the business world that other areas of law will not be eroded, what they considered wrong. . All four spoke on condition of anonymity.

“Commercial law will not be hindered as it is one of the pillars of Hong Kong as an international center of business, commerce and finance,” said George Cautherley, vice president of the International Chamber of Commerce. from the city. Maintaining this reputation will be crucial to Hong Kong’s stated goal of expanding the city as an international center for legal services and arbitration.

Thomas Kellogg, executive director of the Georgetown Center for Asian Law, warned that mainland China’s system shows such a bifurcation between public law – which governs the relationship between people and a government – ​​and private law which manages contracts is “difficult”.

China ranked 98th globally in the World Justice Project index last year, due, among other things, to a lack of government institutions subject to checks and balances.

The situation in Hong Kong is becoming ‘too reminiscent’ of the Xi-era crackdown on human rights lawyers in China,” Kellogg said, referring to the ‘709 crackdown’ which saw some 300 human rights lawyers arrested in 2015. Many are still imprisoned, while others have lost their license.

“The pressure on lawyers taking on security cases makes it even harder for lawyers to come forward,” Kellogg said. “I fear that such cases will only be handled by pro-Beijing lawyers, who will press their clients to reach an agreement with the prosecution, even if they have strong human rights claims that they could argue in defence.”

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