Behind Bars

News last week that a British judge had rejected the proposed extradition of Australian journalist Julian Assange to the United States came as a welcome breakthrough in this long running case. It is possible justice might at last be on the road to being done. It is too early to celebrate completely of course: after all the Americans are unhappy with the verdict, and Assange who is still in custody has been denied bail pro tem. No doubt there will be appeals against both decisions and many more legal rounds to go.

The case began in 2010 with the publication by Wikileaks, founded by Assange, of a series of leaks about the American war efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan which showed them in a very unflattering – some would say criminal – light. The US launched an investigation into the leaks and around the same time Sweden issued an international arrest warrant for Assange on sexual assault charges. Right from the outset, the Australian claimed this was a ruse and the real objective, once he was in Sweden, was to extradite him to the USA. He even offered to go voluntarily to Sweden to face the charges if the authorities there would give an undertaking that he would not be passed on to the Americans after the case was resolved. This offer was declined, Assange jumped bail in 2012 and hid in the Ecuador Embassy in London for seven years.

Several interesting things all happened in 2019 in short order. The Swedes dropped the assault charges, the Ecuadoreans withdrew asylum, and the British arrested Assange and charged him with jumping bail. He has served his sentence for that offence, but in the interim the Americans (as he had forecast) sought his extradition to face charges of espionage. I haven’t seen any reports of intervention on his behalf by the Australian government.

The United States is involved with another high-profile extradition case with which Hong Kong readers may be more familiar. In December 2018 Canadian authorities arrested Cathy Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of Huawei, and daughter of its founder Ren Zhengfei, on American filed fraud charges. Meng is on bail while under house arrest. We should not discuss details of the case while it is still before the courts, but from what has been disclosed in legal documents so far made public, any offence – if one took place at all – occurred outside the United States but that country claims jurisdiction under its self-given extra-territorial rights as the US dollar is involved. Whatever the legal merits of America’s claimed locus, to an independent eye the moral argument was somewhat undermined by remarks by American president Donald Trump to the effect that he would be prepared to grant Meng freedom in exchange for an advantageous trade deal.

So we have two cases, which together involve the United States, Canada, Britain and Australia. Can anyone see a connection? Why yes, all are members of the “Five Eyes” anti-China alliance, and they plus the fifth, New Zealand, have all banned Huawei products from use in their telecommunications industry despite the complete absence of any proven threat to national security. Indeed, at one point in the UK security officials indicated confidence they could adequately monitor Huawei’s products. Until Uncle Sam insisted otherwise.

The subject of extradition rings alarm bells here at home ever since the attempt in 2019 by chief executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor to ram through controversial legislation on the matter with only cursory public consultation and in the teeth of opposition even from pro-government forces. That generated widescale political protest, which morphed from largely peaceful activities to social unrest, riots and vandalism.

Our community is now dealing with the aftermath of those events. There have been many arrests and prosecutions, leading to a mixture of both acquittals and convictions which have generated further controversy in both directions. Some persons fearing prosecution have left Hong Kong, and some already subject to the legal process have attempted to flee – most notably the 12 detained for unlawfully entering mainland waters while allegedly on their way to Taiwan.

The case against them has thrown up a whole raft of issues. It has confirmed that many aspects of the mainland legal system fall far short of the standards Hong Kong people are accustomed to and expect. There is no right to appoint one’s own lawyer, one is designated by the state. The hearing is effectively behind closed doors without presence of close relatives etc. Many of these matters were commented on in an editorial in this newspaper. Since both the Basic Law and the National Security Law confirm continuation of the common law system it is important the key aspects of that be preserved in Hong Kong at least.

But before we get too deeply involved in a further discussion of the missing ingredients in the mainland, it is easy to be side-tracked by some extraordinary criticisms of the way the case of the Hong Kong 12 was handled there. Secretary of State and former CIA boss Mike Pompeo insisted the 12 be released immediately back to Hong Kong, as indeed did their relatives. All seemed oblivious to the irony that the perceived superiority of the Hong Kong system on whose benefits they now wished to rely were the very ones they were caught attempting to flee from. Consular officials from various countries tried in vain to attend the trial, even though none of their nationals were involved.

Meanwhile a prominent critic of the local government queried on the radio how it could be unlawful to go from one part of China to another part “if we are all one country now”. He knows full well that Hong Kong’s status as a separate customs and immigration entity is guaranteed by the Basic Law – of which he is also a critic!

By all means let us have a detailed discussion of all the ways we would like the mainland legal system to be improved. But it would be a lot easier if the various bizarre activities in the margins of the subject were not present.