HONG KONG • Some Hong Kong judges fear that they are being put on a collision course with Beijing, as the special administrative region's government pushes for sweeping legal changes that would, for the first time, allow fugitives captured in Hong Kong to be sent to mainland China for trial.
Three senior judges and 12 leading commercial and criminal lawyers say the changes - called the Fugitive Offenders Ordinance Amendment Bill - mark one of the starkest challenges to Hong Kong's legal system, and are increasingly troubling its business, political and diplomatic communities.
It is the first time that judges - who, by convention, do not comment on political or legislative matters - have discussed the issue publicly.
Hong Kong's independent legal system was guaranteed under the laws governing its return from British to Chinese rule 22 years ago. Its business and diplomatic communities see the legal system as the territory's strongest remaining asset amid encroachments from Beijing.
Hong Kong's extensive autonomy is guaranteed until 2047.
The judges and lawyers say that under Hong Kong's British-based common law system, extraditions are based on the presumption of a fair trial and humane punishment in the receiving country - a core trust which they say China's Communist Party-controlled legal system has not earned.
"These amendments ignore the importance of that trust - and in the case of the mainland, it simply doesn't exist," one experienced judge told Reuters on condition of anonymity.
"Many of us see this as unworkable," the judge said. "And we are deeply disturbed."
Led by Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, local officials have limited public consultation on the amendments and are pushing hard for the city's legislative body to pass the changes before it breaks for summer in July, saying that longstanding "loopholes" need to be plugged.
Mrs Lam's office declined to comment directly, referring questions to Hong Kong's Security Bureau. On Tuesday, she told reporters that the government would consider calls for more safeguards.
The security bureau said in a response to Reuters that only after all "human rights and procedural safeguards" had been satisfied, and the requesting jurisdiction has "pledged to those safeguards", would any extradition case be put to the courts.
The proposed changes provide for case-by-case extraditions to countries, including mainland China, beyond the 20 states with which Hong Kong already has treaties.
The amendments allow the Chief Executive to both seek the arrest of a fugitive and sign off on his extradition once approved by the courts, including any appeals and judicial reviews.
But they also eliminate the oversight roles of the Chief Executive's Cabinet and the city's legislative body, which can currently step in to evaluate extradition arrangements.
Mrs Lam and her administration have repeatedly stressed that there are provisions to stop people from being persecuted for political crimes or religious beliefs, or put at risk of torture. They have also highlighted the role of Hong Kong's judiciary as gatekeepers and guardians.
However, some judges say China's increasingly close relationship with Hong Kong and the limited scope of extradition hearings would leave them with little room to manoeuvre.
They worry that if they try to stop high-profile suspects from being sent across the border, they would be exposed to criticism and political pressure from Beijing.
Conversely, they say, if they approve contentious extradition requests, local critics might accuse the judges of merely doing Beijing's bidding, denting perceptions of independence.
Rights lawyer Michael Vidler spoke of a deepening concern across the legal community.
"It's going to have a dramatic chilling effect," he said.
"The damage to Hong Kong's reputation as a free and safe place where the rule of law is upheld is incalculable."