Seven local radical groups suspected of being linked to explosives and firearms offences in Hong Kong could be prosecuted under the city’s anti-terrorism laws, security officials revealed on Tuesday.
Secretary for Security John Lee Ka-chiu told lawmakers at a Legislative Council meeting that at least three of the 18 cases involved could be defined as terrorist acts.
Officials have warned of a rise in local terrorism after last year’s anti-government protests turned increasingly violent, and Lee said while the city’s threat level remained “moderate”, he did not rule out raising it to “high”.
Hong Kong’s top police operations commander Raymond Siu Chak-yee said in the 18 cases related to explosives and firearms over the past year, 76 people had been arrested and at least seven “radical local groups” were involved.
Of those taken into custody, 30 had been prosecuted on various charges, including “making explosives with intent to endanger life or property” and “making or possession of explosives”.
Siu said at least five firearms had been seized during police operations, including an AR-15 rifle which had been bought online from overseas.
In March, police raided 22 locations and arrested 17 people, seizing about 2.6 tonnes of explosives related to three bomb plots at public facilities, including the Lo Wu railway station and Shenzhen Bay control point.
Lee said the materials were “extremely alarming” in destructive power and quantity, adding the cases were “similar to overseas terrorist activities”.
The security chief said the local United Nations (Anti-Terrorism Measures) Ordinance empowered Hong Kong’s leader to apply for a court order to specify that a suspect was a terrorist or terrorist associate, and the security minister to freeze the assets involved in terrorism activities.
According to Simon Young Ngai-man, associate law dean at the University of Hong Kong, it meant authorities could, for example, seize a person’s flat if it was “shown on balance of probabilities that the flat was intended to finance or otherwise assist the commission of a terrorist act”.
Definitions related to terrorism included causing serious violence, damage to property, or interference of an essential service, facility or system, or the use of threats “made for the purpose of advancing a political, religious or ideological cause”.
The maximum sentence for causing an explosion of a nature intended to endanger life under the legislation is life imprisonment, the same penalty for explosives-related offences under the Crimes Ordinance, the law normally used in such cases.
Opposition lawmaker Kenneth Leung echoed some United Nations experts’ earlier concerns that the definition of terrorist acts under the local law went beyond the terms agreed by the UN Security Council.
But Lee said the definitions were appropriate, adding that some of them, such as causing serious damage to property, were based on Britain's anti-terrorism laws.
“If it is serious damage to property, we think it is still one of the [definitions] of terrorist acts,” Lee said. “For example, even if no one was in the World Trade Centre twin towers during the September 11 attack, when both buildings collapsed, is that not considered terrorism?”
However, Civil Rights Observer founder Icarus Wong Ho-yin said that using the terrorism law to target protest groups would have a chilling effect, and the authorities should exercise restraint.
“Once you label a group as a terrorist group, all its supporters would be supporting terrorism,” he said, adding the law should only be used under very severe circumstances.
He believed other local laws should be considered first if they could be used to target criminal acts, such as taking part in an unlawful assembly, and rioting.
Additional reporting by Chris Lau
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