Hong Kong’s leader refused to hand over a fugitive to the US last year following a request by mainland Chinese authorities, American officials have revealed.
Did Beijing pressure stop Hong Kong from extraditing a hacker to the US?
It is the first such case since the city’s handover from Britain to China in 1997. Hong Kong is run as a semi-autonomous region of China, with a separate governance and legal system.
The extradition request concerned a hacker from Macau who was arrested in the city while accused of breaking into US law firms’ computers, and making millions from stock trades fueled by ill-gotten information.
The US Department of State said in its annual Hong Kong Policy Act Report on Tuesday that Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam had turned down the extradition request “at the behest” of China’s central government in October. The report did not mention the particulars of the case.
The detainee was released into China’s “central government custody” on the basis that Beijing was “pursuing a separate criminal action,” the report read.
Hong Kong Democratic Party legislator James To urged the city’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam to explain why she took the unusual step of refusing an extradition request, and whether the move had been motivated by China's national interest.
He said a failure to explain would risk casting doubt on the “one country, two systems” policy, under which the city is ruled by Beijing but promised a measure of autonomy.
Authorities in the city have usually worked with law enforcement agencies in the US and generally accepted requests for extradition under a bilateral agreement that came into effect in 1997.
In 2013, however, they refused to arrest and extradite Edward Snowden on a legal technicality, which allowed the NSA whistleblower to leave the country for Russia.
In the extradition case, a hacker named Iat Hong, 28, was arrested in Hong Kong on Christmas Day 2016.
He was charged by the US Securities and Exchange Commission with hacking the computer databases of unnamed New York law firms and using the information gained in 2014 and 2015 to trade stocks, as part of a gang of three that made more than $4 million.
But “after nearly 10 months of extradition proceedings in Hong Kong, the [US] government’s extradition application was denied,” US prosecutors said. “Hong thus has not been – and it appears never will be – extradited.”
A government source confirmed to the South China Morning Post on Wednesday that the US had requested Hong’s extradition, but was turned down. The source stressed the government had not been pressured by Beijing, but declined to mention where Hong had left Hong Kong for.
Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said she was not familiar with the case, but said China resolutely opposed the US State Department's report. She insisted that the central government strictly adhered to its constitution and the city’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law.