Fear of China's courts drives Hong Kong extradition concerns

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FILE - In this June 16, 2019, file photo, protesters march on the streets against an extradition bill in Hong Kong. With Britain the latest country to scrap an extradition treaty with Hong Kong, the focus has returned to concerns over Chinese justice that sparked months of anti-government protests in the semi-autonomous city last year. (AP Photo/Vincent Yu, File)

HONG KONG – A year ago, an extradition bill in Hong Kong that could have sent suspects to mainland China for trial sparked the largest protests and biggest political crisis the semi-autonomous territory has seen since its return to China in 1997.

Now, the issue has come full circle. After China used the demonstrations as justification to impose a sweeping new security law in Hong Kong, the U.K. this week became the fourth country to suspend its extradition treaty with the former British colony, joining the United States, Australia and Canada.

As with Hong Kong's now-withdrawn extradition bill, the concern was the possibility that people could be handed over to mainland Chinese law enforcement and disappear into its opaque and frequently abusive legal system.

“Extradition, at the bottom of it, is a political act. It’s a political act whether or not you surrender a person,” said Philip Dykes, chairman of the Hong Kong Bar Association. “Extradition treaties with Hong Kong were always on the basis that whatever happens, a person will not be removed to the mainland.”

The moves underscore a growing divide between authoritarian China and the U.S. and other like-minded democracies over human rights and other issues. Just three years ago, Australia's conservative government was making a high-profile push for an extradition treaty with China, an effort that ran afoul of parliamentary opposition. Now, not only has Australia suspended extradition with Hong Kong, it is warning its citizens of the risk of arbitrary detention in China.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, after meeting U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab in London, applauded Britain’s suspension of the extradition treaty and other recent steps against China.

“We want every nation to work together to push back against the Chinese Communist Party’s efforts in every dimension that I have described,” he said.

China says the new security law is needed to combat terrorism and separatism and prevent Hong Kong from becoming a base for undermining Chinese state power. In general, cases would be tried in Hong Kong, but the law allows for mainland jurisdiction in some circumstances.