‘Pursued for life’: Hong Kong targets dissident lawyers with bounty, misconduct complaints

Independence of professional bodies to be tested as pro-democracy clampdown continues
Dennis Kwok (second from left) at a press conference with the other disqualified law makers

Dennis Kwok (second from left) at a press conference in 2020 Alvin Lum

Hong Kong’s justice secretary, Paul Lam SC, has reported two high-profile pro-democracy lawyers to their professional bodies accusing them of bringing the profession into disrepute. 

The complaints against barrister Dennis Kwok, a former legislator, and ex-Kennedys solicitor Kevin Yam, mark the latest of ongoing efforts by the Hong Kong authorities to stamp out dissent following the controversial imposition of the Special Administrative Region’s (SAR’s) national security law in 2020.

The two lawyers are among eight democracy activists, all based overseas, who had HK$1m bounties placed on their heads last week.

“The only way to end their destiny of being an absconder, who will be pursued for life, is to surrender,” the Special Administrative Region’s chief executive, former policeman, John Lee, told reporters, justifying the warrants under the national security law.

Hong Kong’s police said they would pursue the activists based on the principle of extraterritoriality under similar legislation adopted overseas. 

Lam’s subsequent complaint to the pair’s respective regulators, the Hong Kong Bar Association and the Law Society of Hong Kong, will test these bodies’ independence as Hong Kong prepares to host the International Council of Commercial Arbitrators congress in 2024. 

In a lengthy statement Lam claimed the lawyers had “used their professional capacity... to lend perceived credibility and authority to their smearing of Hong Kong’s judicial system and rule of law, and made slanderous remarks against Hong Kong judges and prosecutors.” He added: “Their acts bring the profession into disrepute and undermine public confidence in the HKSAR’s judicial system and rule of law.”

Yam, who is based in Australia, and Kwok, now resident in New York working as a legal consultant, have strongly protested the allegations. 

The arrest warrants were met with immediate condemnation by the Australian, UK and US governments. Liberal Democrat MP, Layla Morgan, asked Foreign Secretary James Cleverly to sanction Hong Kong officials involved in the crackdown.

Responding, Cleverly dubbed the arrest warrants as an example of “the authoritarian reach of China’s extraterritorial law”, adding that the UK government “will not tolerate any attempts by China to intimidate and silence individuals in the UK and overseas.”

In March last year, the UK’s two Supreme Court representatives on Hong Kong’s Final Court of Appeal resigned, citing the Hong Kong administration’s departure from “values of political freedom and freedom of expression”.

Lam previously opposed the instruction of foreign counsel for media tycoon, Jimmy Lai, who also stands accused of national security offences. While Lam’s arguments were overturned by the courts, Beijing later intervened to bar Matrix Chambers’ Tim Owen KC from appearing on Lai’s behalf. 

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