Hong Kong lawmakers have completed a review of the clauses in the city’s proposed security legislation following six consecutive days of meetings, moving the bill a step closer to being passed into law by the opposition-free legislature.

Legislative Council
Hong Kong Legislative Council. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

Continuing their meetings on Tuesday, lawmakers on the Bills Committee on Safeguarding National Security Bill and government officials discussed the draft law of Article 23, the city’s homegrown security legislation.

Lawmaker Peter Koon questioned officials about a clause in the draft law which states that authorities can deny early release to prisoners convicted over national security offences. Under the current law, inmates can be granted early release contingent on good behaviour.

The draft law proposes that national security offenders may not be eligible for early release schemes if it is believed that they could continue to endanger national security, and that the commissioner of correctional services would review the decision to deny them early release annually. The move would apply to people convicted of national security offences, including under the Beijing-imposed security law.

Koon suggested that the decision could be reviewed every six months instead.

Peter Douglas Koon
Lawmaker Peter Douglas Koon. File photo: Peter Lee/HKFP.

“[Reviewing every six months] would give [inmates] motivation to improve themselves,” he said in Cantonese.

Otherwise, inmates may not have the incentive to be diligent or behave well, Koon added.

But Secretary for Security Chris Tang said annual reviews were more “reasonable” because the authorities needed to “inspect” whether there had been changes to the offender’s “thinking and behaviour,” and whether they still posed a threat to national security.

Lawmaker Lai Tung-kwok asked whether the power to deny national security offenders early release was retroactive, and if people currently serving time for such offences would be affected.

Acting law officer of the Department of Justice, Daphne Siu, said it would not be retroactive. She added that inmates could lodge appeals anytime.

article 23 national security law draft
A draft of Hong Kong’s homegrown national security law. Photo: Hillary Leung/HKFP.

Under Article 23 of Hong Kong’s Basic Law, the city is obliged to pass its own domestic security legislation.

Separate from the national security law that Beijing imposed on the city after the 2019 protests, the homegrown security legislation seeks to criminalise five offences: treason, insurrection, theft of state secrets and espionage, sabotage endangering national security, and external interference.

Marathon meetings

Legislators on the Bills Committee on Safeguarding National Security Bill have met to discuss the draft bill every day since Friday.

The draft will be put to a general meeting, in which the city’s 89 lawmakers will discuss the bill, next Wednesday at the earliest, local media reported.

It is expected to be passed swiftly by the “patriots-only” Legislative Council, which lost its opposition after the government overhauled election rules to introduce candidate screenings and nomination requirements.

Local media outlets reported that the law could be passed as early as in April.

The public consultation document of Hong Kong's homegrown security law, Article 23, on January 30, 2024. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.
The public consultation document of Hong Kong’s homegrown security law, Article 23, on January 30, 2024. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

In 2003, the last time Hong Kong attempted to legislate Article 23, an estimated 500,000 protesters marched to oppose the law. Local opposition this time around has been muted with the Beijing-imposed national security law in effect, under which mass protests have not taken place.

During the bill committee meetings, lawmakers have suggested amendments to the draft bill that would make the legislation harsher. On Tuesday, some said a proposal relating to measures against “absconders” was “too lenient.”

The draft bill currently states that authorities could levy sanctions against an individual charged under the homegrown security law if they do not appear before a court in the six months after they have been issued an arrest warrant. The sanctions include cancelling their passports and prohibiting anybody from providing them with funding.

Lawmakers said the six-month period was too long and that punitive measures should be levelled as soon as possible, with security chief Tang saying the government was considering scrapping the window.

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Hillary Leung is a journalist at Hong Kong Free Press, where she reports on local politics and social issues, and assists with editing. Since joining in late 2021, she has covered the Covid-19 pandemic, political court cases including the 47 democrats national security trial, and challenges faced by minority communities.

Born and raised in Hong Kong, Hillary completed her undergraduate degree in journalism and sociology at the University of Hong Kong. She worked at TIME Magazine in 2019, where she wrote about Asia and overnight US news before turning her focus to the protests that began that summer. At Coconuts Hong Kong, she covered general news and wrote features, including about a Black Lives Matter march that drew controversy amid the local pro-democracy movement and two sisters who were born to a domestic worker and lived undocumented for 30 years in Hong Kong.