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Anti-government protesters march against Beijing's plans to impose national security legislation in Hong Kong on Sunday.TYRONE SIU/Reuters

Irwin Cotler is the chair of the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights, emeritus professor of law at McGill University, and former justice minister and attorney-general of Canada.

Beijing’s proposed enactment of sweeping national security legislation for Hong Kong – in the aftermath of the charges against 15 pro-democracy legislators, journalists and activists for “unlawful protests” about nine months ago – constitutes a basic assault on the rule of law in Hong Kong. It represents the criminalization of fundamental freedoms, protected under its Basic Law, and politicized prosecution under the cover of the global pandemic.

Indeed, one of those arrested was Martin Lee, Hong Kong’s “Father of Democracy” and an author of its Basic Law, for participating in a peaceful protest last August in which 1.7 million people marched against a bill that would have allowed Hongkongers to be extradited to mainland China to be prosecuted for alleged crimes. That bill was withdrawn, but this latest national security legislation would only accomplish the same purpose.

An even more egregious extension of the Chinese Communist Party’s culture of corruption and criminality into Hong Kong is the continuing incitement by Beijing’s top Liaison Office in Hong Kong. It has characterized the protesters as a “political virus," adding that Beijing will not sit idly by while this “poisonous” and “relentlessly demented force” persists. This pathogenic invective recalls the state-orchestrated rhetoric of the November, 2019, protests, when the demonstrators were demonized in Chinese state media as an “infection” and a “malignant virus."

These are dramatic case studies not only of the criminalization of rights, but of something even more malign – a frontal assault, under cover of the pandemic, on the rule of law and Hong Kong’s democracy movement.

Beijing’s justifications for the arrest of the “Hong Kong 15” and this latest legislation have been mounting for some time. The government and its proxies in Hong Kong have been and continue to be in breach of the Sino-British Declaration of 1997 – which has the force of an international treaty – including its promise of a high degree of autonomy for Hong Kong until 2047.

In particular, the Hong Kong Basic Law – created as a condition of the handover and approved by the CCP – prohibits Beijing from interfering in Hong Kong’s affairs: Article 22 states that “no department under the Chinese central or local government may interfere in the affairs of the Hong Kong Special Region.” Despite accusations that Beijing has violated this with “blatant intervention,” the Liaison Office in Hong Kong has brazenly declared that Article 22 does not apply to it. “China’s statement is astounding and incendiary ... if taken seriously, it collapses the 'whole one country two systems edifice’ that was constructed over so many years since the Joint Declaration of 1997,” said Jerome Cohen, a leading Chinese law expert at New York University.

The Liaison Office had been demanding, unsuccessfully, that Hong Kong implement Article 23, which would outlaw acts of “sedition, subversion, and state secrets.” These are vague and overly broad laws that the CCP has deployed to criminalize freedom of religion, press and assembly on the mainland; recently, they were used to arrest and disappear doctors and dissidents for reporting on the pandemic. Indeed, it was the Hong Kong media that unmasked Beijing’s COVID-19 coverup – the same media that could now be prosecuted for "unauthorized disclosure of protected information,” as Mr. Lee put it, under the national security legislation.

More recently, pro-democracy candidates swept local elections in Hong Kong this past November, shocking the CCP. As the more important elections for its legislative council loom in September, prosecutions under the national security legislation and of the “Hong Kong 15” could drive candidates out of the process. As pro-democracy lawmaker Claudia Mo put it, “they are dealing a knockout blow to the democracy movement."

And all of this was simmering in the background when, on April 14, three of Hong Kong’s most senior judges warned that the independence of Hong Kong’s judiciary was “under assault” and that it was in a “fight for its survival.”

Against the backdrop of the continuing breach of the Sino-British Joint Declaration and the Basic Law, the prosecution of the pro-democracy leaders and the proposed national security legislation are looking-glasses into the existential threat to freedom for the people of Hong Kong. Canada and the Community of Democracies have a responsibility to uphold international treaties, the rule of law and the protection of fundamental liberties, and as a letter from the Joint International Parliamentary Alliance affirmed on Monday, we must step in to save Hong Kong’s democratic movement – in support of democracy itself.

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