By Kirsty Needham
SYDNEY (Reuters) – An Australian lawyer with a bounty on his head from the Hong Kong authorities, said on Thursday he was being pursued for “exercising my democratic rights” in a crackdown on free speech.
Kevin Yam, 47, is one of eight overseas-based activists accused by Hong Kong police of “serious” national security offences, including foreign collusion, in a case that casts a spotlight on the reach of Hong Kong’s national security law.
The police on Monday offered a HK$1 million ($130,000) reward for information leading to the arrest of any of the eight.
Yam, who worked as a financial services lawyer in Hong Kong for 17 years, said he had not been involved in activism there for several years before returning to Australia last year, and his arrest warrant could have a “chilling effect on people around the world”.
“The things they are alleging against me, and putting a bounty over my head now, are all for things that I have done since I returned to Australia,” Yam said.
The Hong Kong police and security bureau did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The Hong Kong government said in a statement on Thursday that “national security laws have extraterritorial effects” recognised under international law, and criticism of the bounties amounted to “double standards” and “hypocrisy”.
Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning said on Tuesday that Yam and the seven others were “fugitives” who had urged sanctions on Hong Kong and “long been engaged in anti-China activities”.
Australia’s foreign interference laws make it illegal for a foreign power to monitor activists and suppress free speech. Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said on Wednesday that Hong Kong’s bounty on Yam was “unacceptable”.
‘A MORAL DUTY TO SPEAK’
Beijing imposed the national security law, which punishes subversion, collusion with foreign forces and secession with up to life imprisonment, on Hong Kong after sometimes violent anti-government protest in 2019. Hong Kong says 260 people have been arrested under the law, 79 of them convicted for offences including subversion and terrorism.
Western government and activists say the law has been used to crush dissent in the former British colony. China and Hong Kong say it was necessary to restore stability in the financial hub.
The Law Council of Australia said it was concerned about the law’s “purported extraterritorial application” and the bounties on Yam and former Hong Kong lawmaker Ted Hui, who has lived in Australia since 2021.
The Law Society of Hong Kong said in a statement it was investigating a national security complaint about a member as a result of the eight arrest warrants, a reference that Yam said was to him.
Richard McGregor, an analyst with the Lowy Institute think tank, said the bounty was likely aimed at stopping other Hong Kongers from speaking out overseas. “This is Chinese-style lawfare, except it doesn’t stop at their own border,” he said.
Yam said he started speaking out about the rule of law in Hong Kong and the crackdown because his friends were in jail.
“The ones in jail can no longer speak up. The ones in exile, some of them feel too scared to speak,” he said. “I’m an Australian citizen and I am living in my own country now. I feel a moral duty to speak up.”
Yam, who testified remotely to a U.S. congressional panel in May about pressure on Hong Kong’s legal system, said he has met with “a lot of Australian MPs”, including the foreign minister, to raise awareness about Hong Kong.
“I’m an Australian – what’s colluding with foreign forces when I am exercising my democratic rights to meet my representatives? How does that work?” he said.
(Reporting by Kirsty Needham in Sydney; Additional reporting by James Pomfret and Jessie Pang in Hong Kong; Editing by William Mallard)
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