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Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Marco Mendicino holds a press conference in Ottawa on Nov. 12, 2020.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino says Hongkongers who were arrested or charged after “taking part in peaceful protests” in the former British colony would not be deemed inadmissible to Canada, but he declined to say if this covers specific charges such as rioting or unlawful assembly.

Human-rights advocates and civil-liberties groups have accused Hong Kong authorities of politically motivated arrests and charges in connection with protests that began in mid-2019.

Mr. Mendicino was testifying Monday evening before the House of Commons special committee on Canada-China relations about a program that Ottawa announced last week to attract young Hong Kong migrants who would be economically useful to this country.

He faced repeated questions from opposition MPs, including NDP immigration critic Jenny Kwan and Conservative immigration critic Raquel Dancho, about whether Canada is willing to overlook arrests or charges relating to protests that began in mid-2019.

In his opening remarks, the minister said Ottawa would not deny entry to anyone solely for having been charged under a new national-security law imposed by Beijing on Hong Kong in June. Ostensibly aimed at secession, subversion and terrorism, the law defines these offences so vaguely that critics say it effectively criminalizes dissent and opposition.

Mr. Mendicino also said would-be migrants or asylum seekers would also not be denied entry for “arrests and convictions outside Canada for taking part in peaceful protests.”

There have been relatively few charges laid under the new security legislation, but more than 10,000 Hongkongers have been arrested in connection with pro-democracy protests dating back to June, 2019, and more than 2,400 face charges, often for “rioting” and unlawful assembly.

Pressed on the matter, Mr. Mendicino reiterated that no one will be deemed inadmissible, “if they have not committed any crime that is known to Canadian law.”

Opposition MPs on the committee noted, however, that rioting and unlawful assembly, two charges laid against protestors in Hong Kong, are also listed as charges under the Canadian Criminal Code.

The minister replied that it would be up to public servants to make the determination.

“All I can do is reiterate what the principle is. But it is not for me to adjudicate that admissibility screening,” Mr. Mendicino told MPs.

Ms. Dancho said she would have liked to hear a more broad commitment from the minister regarding the admissibility of those with protest arrests or related charges on their record.

“Either we stand with pro-democracy protesters against the Communist regime or we don’t," she said. "They once had the same freedoms as Canada, and they are having them taken away. Shouldn’t we be doing all we can for them?”

Vancouver-based immigration lawyer Richard Kurland said he doesn’t think that Hongkongers wanting to flee to Canada will face trouble gaining entry due to arrests or charges for protests.

“Canada is unlikely to view Hong Kong charges as being equivalent to Canadian criminal charges,” he said.

“The Immigration and Refugee Board will bring out the rules used during the Soviet Union era to see if charges were ‘criminal’ or ‘political,’” he said.

It has been more than three months since Beijing enacted the Law of the People’s Republic of China on Safeguarding National Security, cracking down on a multitude of freedoms in Hong Kong. Western countries including Canada have accused the Chinese government of breaking a treaty with Britain that pledged to leave human and civil rights in Hong Kong untouched for 50 years after the former British colony was handed over to China in 1997.

This new law spells trouble for the multitude of Hongkongers who have opposed Beijing’s efforts to erode rights in the Asian city, including those arrested or charged in connection with past protests or those under surveillance by Hong Kong police.

Canada’s arm’s-length Immigration and Refugee Board recently granted asylum to two Hong Kong activists, as The Globe and Mail first reported, but their case was unusual in that they came to Canada in late 2019, and neither face charges back home for taking part in pro-democracy protests. More than 45 other activists who arrived before the coronavirus pandemic have also applied to be accepted as refugees.

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