The former chairperson of the Hong Kong Bar Association has reportedly left Hong Kong, hours after local media said he was summoned to a meeting with national security police.

Veteran lawyer Paul Harris was spotted at the Hong Kong International Airport on Tuesday evening, according to state-backed newspaper Wen Wei Po.

Paul Harris
Paul Harris. Photo: Denis Chang’s Chambers, via screenshot.

In a video, Harris can be seen walking through the airport’s departure hall and waving goodbye before going into the customs area. He ignored a reporter’s questions about why he was leaving Hong Kong.

He confirmed to Reuters that he had left but declined to elaborate. “Yes, on way to see my mother in England,” he wrote in a message to the news agency.

Harris’ apparent departure comes after local media said earlier in the day that he was called to a meeting with national security police at the police headquarters in Wan Chai and given a warning over an alleged breach of the security legislation.

According to reports, the meeting was related to NGO Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor, of which Harris was the founding chairperson. The rights group has been accused by state-run media of colluding with foreign forces and playing a “major role” in the anti-extradition protests in 2019.

police wan chai
Police headquarters in Wan Chai. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/QWB656.

In an email to HKFP, the Bar Association said it is “ascertaining the situation and has no comment at this stage.” HKFP has also reached out to Harris and his law firm Denis Chang’s Chambers.

Asked to confirm if Harris was suspected of violating the national security law, the Department of Justice said to contact the police. The Force told HKFP on Tuesday that it will not comment on individual cases.

Under fire

A prominent human rights lawyer, Harris – who was representing former lawmakers Helena Wong and Andrew Wan in the 47 democrats case – has been the subject of attacks over the last year. Shortly after being elected as chairperson of the Hong Kong Bar Association last January, Harris expressed concern over the city’s rule of law and said the national security legislation was inconsistent with the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini constitution.

Paul Harris
Paul Harris, chairman of the Hong Kong Bar Association, arrives at the West Kowloon Magistrates’ Court on July 8, 2021 to represent his clients in a national security hearing involving 47 democrats. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

The national security legislation, which was passed by Beijing in June 2020, criminalised subversion, secession, collusion with foreign forces and terrorist acts. Rights groups and pro-democracy activists say the law has been used to silence opposition and crack down on civil society groups, while authorities maintain that it has restored stability and peace to the city.

“I am not against the principle of having national security laws, which most countries have for legitimate reasons,” Harris wrote in the article on the Bar Association’s website at that time. “But the Hong Kong NSL excludes certain officials from all legal challenge for their actions.”

October 1 Police purple flag causeway bay national security banner
A police banner warning against potential violations of the national security law. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

Beijing’s liaison office in Hong Kong claimed that Harris was “cheering for independence advocates” and said he was unfit to chair the Bar Association.

Months later, in April, the organ accused Harris of spreading “distorted opinion” and supporting those who had violated the law. The Liaison Office’s comments were in response to Harris criticising the sentencing of veteran democrat activist Martin Lee and media mogul Jimmy Lai over two unauthorised assemblies in August 2019.

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Hillary has an interest in social issues and politics. Previously, she reported on Asia broadly - including on Hong Kong's 2019 protests - for TIME Magazine and covered local news at Coconuts Hong Kong.