Hong Kong security chief says no legal way to return bookseller to China

Previously missing Hong Kong bookseller Lam Wing-kee arrives at Wanchai police station to report to the police in Hong Kong on June 27, 2016.
Previously missing Hong Kong bookseller Lam Wing-kee arrives at Wanchai police station to report to the police in Hong Kong on June 27, 2016.PHOTO: AFP

HONG KONG (Reuters, AFP) - Hong Kong's security chief said on Wednesday (July 6) that there was no legal way a Hong Kong bookseller who returned to the city after being detained on the mainland could be sent back to China.

Secretary for Security Lai Tung Kwok's comments came after a one-day trip to Beijing to meet with officials, after five Hong Kong booksellers who went missing last year later surfaced in mainland Chinese custody.

One of the booksellers, Lam Wing Kee, returned to Hong Kong last month and held a press conference detailing his months of captivity and repeated interrogations by mainland agents.

He was supposed to return to the mainland after being released to Hong Kong on bail last month but has refused to do so. A mainland Chinese law enforcement body on Tuesday said that Lam had violated his bail terms and criminal enforcement measures would be triggered by his failure to return. It did not specify what those measures might entail.

Hong Kong and China have no extradition treaty, meaning there is no obligation for city authorities to hand Lam back to China even if he is violating the terms of his bail.

Lai said a formal request for Lam's return to China had not been discussed at the meeting in Beijing. "There is no legal arrangement for the transfer of a person to the mainland authorities and the Hong Kong government will handle all cases in accordance with the law of Hong Kong," Lai told reporters on Wednesday.

The case has put the city’s China-friendly Chief Executive Leung Chun Ying in a very awkward position, trapped between his political masters in Beijing and Hong Kongers angry about the city’s direction.  

“The government and I are paying close attention to the issue of Lam Wing Kee’s concerns for his personal safety,” Leung told reporters Wednesday.  

Leung said the meeting between Hong Kong and Chinese officials was productive, with both sides agreeing that mainland authorities should notify their Hong Kong counterparts of arrests and detentions within 14 days. 

Hong Kong officials pledged to provide any necessary police protection for Lam, who said he had been followed by strangers and feared for his safety. Police deputy commissioner Tony Wong said officers were willing to offer Lam protection “if he wishes it”. 

 Hong Kong is a special administrative region of China, governed by separate laws under a 1997 agreement with the British that returned it to Chinese rule.

The controversy surrounding the Hong Kong booksellers erupted last year when the five men associated with the Causeway Bay Books store disappeared. The store had specialised in gossipy books about China's leaders, including President Xi Jinping. Such books are banned on the mainland but legal in Hong Kong.

Two of the men, Gui Minhai and Lee Bo, held Swedish and British passports and went missing in Thailand and Hong Kong, respectively.

Thousands have taken to the streets in Hong Kong following the men's disappearance, saying that Beijing has not abided by the "one country, two systems" arrangement by which it agreed to rule Hong Kong for 50 years.

Hong Kong officials said they would hold another meeting with their mainland Chinese counterparts at the end of the month to discuss the notification process for when Hong Kong residents are detained in the mainland.