The UK calls the move an unjustifiable attempt to silence those speaking out for human rights in the city.
By Lee Yuk-yue, Liu Aoran and Raymond Chung
A woman holds an umbrella as she walks past a banner outside a clinic designated to treat patients for COVID-19, in Hong Kong, Feb. 17, 2022.
The UK on Monday hit out at authorities in China and Hong Kong after they put pressure on a London-based rights group to take down its website, threatening prosecution under a draconian national security law applicable anywhere in the world.
Hong Kong's national security police wrote to Benedict Rogers, CEO of Hong Kong Watch, ordering him to take down the group's website, which recently criticized the Hong Kong government's handling of a skyrocketing COVID-19 wave in the city.
"You and Hong Kong Watch are obliged to remove the website ... without delay, and immediately cease engaging in any acts and activities in contravention of the national security law or any other laws of Hong Kong," the police letter said. "Should you fail to do so, further action will be instituted against you and Hong Kong Watch without further notice."
The group has been highly critical of the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP)'s rights record in Hong Kong, particularly following a city-wide crackdown on pro-democracy activists, opposition politicians and journalists after the national security law was imposed on the city from July 1, 2020.
British foreign secretary Liz Truss said the letter was a clear attempt at intimidation.
"The unjustifiable action taken against the UK-based NGO Hong Kong Watch is clearly an attempt to silence those who stand up for human rights in Hong Kong," Truss said in a statement on Monday.
"The Chinese Government and Hong Kong authorities must respect the universal right to freedom of speech, and uphold that right in Hong Kong in accordance with international commitments, including the Joint Declaration," she said, in a reference to the U.N.-register treaty governing the 1997 handover of Hong Kong to Chinese rule.
"Attempting to silence voices globally that speak up for freedom and democracy is unacceptable and will never succeed," she said.
The police letter also accused Rogers of "collusion with a foreign power" under Article 29 of the law, saying he had lobbied for sanctions against Hong Kong, thereby interfering in China's internal affairs and undermining its national security.
"A person who commits the offense shall be sentenced to imprisonment of not less than 3 years [with a maximum penalty of] life imprisonment," said the letter, which confirmed that the Hong Kong Watch website is currently being blocked by the Hong Kong authorities.
The U.K. suspended its extradition treaty with Hong Kong after the national security law took effect.
Hong Kong Watch said the group is one of the first foreign organizations to be targeted under the law.
Group patron Lord Patten of Barnes, the last colonial governor of Hong Kong, said Chinese and Hong Kong officials are "trying not only to stamp out freedom of expression and information in Hong Kong but also to internationalize their campaign against evidence, freedom and honesty."
Lord Alton of Liverpool, who was sanctioned by China last year, said the letter was a significant escalation on the part of the Chinese government.
"It signifies the attempted application of the abhorrent 'extraterritoriality' clause of the draconian national security law which Beijing imposed on Hong Kong," he said.
"The result of that appalling law is the total destruction of Hong Kong's freedoms and autonomy, and now the regime is using that law to try to undermine freedom around the world. It is ... a shocking attempt to intimidate and threaten an organization which has been at the forefront of global advocacy for Hong Kong."
Rogers, who was turned away by Hong Kong immigration officers at the city's international airport when he last tried to travel there five years ago, said the group wouldn't be silenced by such threats.
"We will not be silenced by an authoritarian security apparatus which, through a mixture of senseless brutality and ineptitude, has triggered rapid mass migration out of the city and shut down civil society," he said. "We will continue to be a voice for the people of Hong Kong and those brave political prisoners who have been jailed under this authoritarian regime."
He said it was ironic that many Hong Kong police officers and government officials still hold foreign passports, send their children to be educated in the West, and have their savings held in Western banks overseas to avoid Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaigns.
Pro-democracy activist Joey Siu, who advises Hong Kong Watch, said many dissenting voices have already been silenced within Hong Kong itself.
"The Hong Kong government has used the national security law to disband and dissolve various civic groups and to arrest most of the pan-democrats during the past few months," Siu told RFA. "They want to stop them from taking Hong Kong's voice onto the international stage, and dampen concern in the international community to the human rights situation [in the city]."
"The national security law can be applied to anyone, anywhere in the world, to foreigners transiting through Hong Kong, as well as to permanent residents and Chinese nationals," she said.
Attempts to load the Hong Kong Watch website from Hong Kong on Monday resulted in a notice saying "unable to connect to this site," with the site only accessible via a VPN.
An official who answered the phone at the Hong Kong police force declined to comment "on individual cases" when contacted by RFA on Monday.
Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.