Beijing’s power to interpret the national security law “can be used sparingly,” the head of the Hong Kong Bar Association (HKBA) has said.

Chairperson of the HKBA, Senior Counsel Victor Dawes, said that while the power granted to the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPCSC) was “expressly provided for” in the security law, the exercise of such power would “inevitably attract discussions and also criticism of our legal system.”

Hong Kong Bar Association responded to the government’s request to Beijing to interpret the city’s national security law on November 29, 2022. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

The chair’s comment came after Chief Executive John Lee announced he had invited Beijing to interpret the legislation on whether overseas counsels could participate in national security cases.

The chief executive announced the proposal following a ruling from the city’s Court of Final Appeal on Monday afternoon, which rejected the secretary for justice’s application to appeal against the admission of King’s Counsel Timothy Owen in the national security trial against media tycoon Jimmy Lai.

Jimmy Lai. Photo: HKFP.

Lai stands accused of four offences under the national security law and the colonial-era sedition law. The trial was initially scheduled to begin on Thursday, but Lee said on Tuesday morning that the Department of Justice would apply to adjourn the hearing.

“The NSL is a relatively new piece of legislation, and we hope that any ambiguity can be clarified by our courts in the future, and the power to interpret under Article 65 can be exercised sparingly,” said Dawes.

The Bar Council of HKBA objected the admission of Owen, and argued that there were barristers qualified to practise in Hong Kong who were capable of handling the trial and that an overseas counsel would not contribute much to the case.

Hong Kong Bar Association Chairman Victor Dawes responded to the government’s request to Beijing to interpret the city’s national security law on November 29, 2022. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

The incident would not harm Hong Kong’s judicial independence, said Dawes.

“These are not events that happen frequently,” he said. “I absolutely do not believe that there is a normalisation.”

Support from Chinese offices

Following the announcement that Beijing would be invited to intervene, the Chinese Liaison Office and the Office of the Commissioner of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Hong Kong expressed their support for Lee’s decision.

King’s Counsel Timothy Owen leaving the Court of Final Appeal in Central on November 25, 2022. Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

Allowing a UK barrister to represent Lai was in violation with the regulation to prevent, stop, and punish acts endangering national security, and the legislative intention of the security law, a spokesperson from the Commissioner’s Office of China’s Foreign Ministry in Hong Kong said in a statement on Monday evening.

A Chinese Liaison Office spokesperson said that the office “strongly condemned and resolutely opposed” some foreign governments and politicians “openly intervening” with the handling of Hong Kong national security cases.

“We support Chief Executive John Lee to file a report on specific matters safeguarding national security to the Central Government, and support the SAR national security committee to take measures in preventing risks and hidden troubles that would endanger national security, resolutely safeguarding the authority of Hong Kong national security and constitutional order,” the liaison office statement read.

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Candice Chau

Candice is a reporter at Hong Kong Free Press. She previously worked as a researcher at a local think tank. She has a BSocSc in Politics and International Relations from the University of Manchester and a MSc in International Political Economy from London School of Economics.