Concerns are growing over the reach of the national security law that China imposed on Hong Kong as Britain warned several of its citizens that they could face arrest and extradition to the former British colony.
China passed the national security law in June 2020 in response to months of anti-government protests in Hong Kong. Beijing claimed the law was necessary to restore order to the territory and, in its words, "protect people's rights." Critics say the law curtails basic democratic freedoms and is aimed at suppressing political opposition. Over 140 people have been arrested under the legislation since it was introduced, including opposition lawmakers, activists, journalists and media executives.
Among those arrested was opposition activist Andy Li, who was charged with foreign collusion in 2020 after allegedly lobbying foreign governments to impose sanctions on Hong Kong and China.
Several British citizens were named in the court papers relating to Li's case. Earlier this month, the British government contacted them to warn they could face arrest and extradition to Hong Kong if they traveled to any country that had an extradition agreement with the Chinese territory.
U.S.-born British citizen Bill Browder was among at least five people contacted by the British Foreign Office. He has successfully campaigned in several countries for Magnitsky sanctions against human rights abusers, named after his lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who died in a Russian jail in 2009.
Browder told VOA Monday that his involvement stemmed from that lobbying. "Specifically, my name was mentioned because I was having discussions with various people about Magnitsky sanctions against the Hong Kong officials who were involved in this suppression of democracy," he said. "After alerting me to my name being in the document, the (British) Foreign Office officials pointed out to me that the Chinese national security law doesn't just apply domestically to residents of Hong Kong; it applies to anyone, anywhere in the world. And I guess the point of their reach out was to alert me to that fact and to the possibility that I may be subject to some type of persecution myself from the Chinese authorities for being involved in these discussions."
Browder has already faced several attempts by Russia to have him arrested and extradited on fraud charges through Interpol, the global agency that communicates arrest warrants between police forces. Browder says those charges are clearly politically motivated, but he is, nevertheless, limited as to where he can travel.
"I basically contain my travel to what I describe as 'rule of law' countries. So, for example, I won't travel to South Africa, even though I actually own a home in South Africa, because it's not really considered to be a rule of law country, whereas I would travel to Germany regardless of what treaties they have because I know that a court will not hand me over to Russians or Chinese on politically motivated cases," Browder said.
China has not commented on the British government's warnings. More than a dozen countries have extradition agreements with Hong Kong, including India, South Africa and Portugal. Several countries, however, tore up their extradition treaties with Hong Kong following the introduction of the national security law. These include Britain, the United States, Australia, Germany and France.
British pro-democracy activist Luke de Pulford, who had also been named in the Hong Kong court papers relating to the prosecution of Andy Li, was approached by the British Foreign Office last week. He told VOA that Britain should stand up to Beijing.
"It's a really sad indictment and reflection on the U.K.'s cowering before China. We're now in a situation that having failed to honor their promises to the people of Hong Kong, the U.K. is telling people that they can't go to third countries because they might end up in prison. They might be extradited to China," de Pulford recently told VOA.
Under the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration signed between Britain and China before the 1997 handover of Hong Kong, Beijing promised to maintain the territory's autonomy under the so-called Basic Law and the principle of "one country, two systems."
In a statement, the British government told VOA: "The UK will not look the other way on Hong Kong, and we will not duck our historic responsibilities to its people. As a co-signatory to the Joint Declaration, we will continue to stand up for the people of Hong Kong, to call out the violation of their freedoms, and to hold China to their international obligations."