Hong Kong authorities are warning a British citizen that he faces imprisonment if he ever returns to the city.
Benedict Rogers is a co-founder of Hong Kong Watch, a Britain-based NGO that campaigns for freedom and human rights in Hong Kong.
In a letter sent to Rogers on Thursday, Hong Kong authorities stated that his charity organization had committed a foreign collusion offense under the city’s much-feared national security law and jeopardized China’s national security.
"A person who commits the offense shall be sentenced to imprisonment of not less than 3 years to life,” part of the letter read.
The activist later said the letter came as a surprise.
“In theory, I knew this could happen, but I never expected for it to go this far,” Rogers told VOA by phone.
Rogers had contacted the Hong Kong government over fears that the Hong Kong Watch website had been blocked in the city following reports the site hasn’t been accessible since early February.
“I contacted the Hong Kong government to ask for an explanation and the letter I then received from the police and an email from the national Security Bureau was their response to my inquiry,” he told VOA.
The reply to Rogers all but confirmed that authorities are using the powers of the national security law to prohibit users in Hong Kong from accessing the organizations website.
Rogers is the first person living outside Hong Kong whom authorities have targeted with the national security law since it came into force nearly two years ago.
British government reaction
British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss released a statement via Twitter on Monday, calling for the Chinese government and Hong Kong authorities to respect the universal right to freedom of speech.
“The unjustifiable action taken against the UK-Based NGO Hong Kong Watch is clearly an attempt to silence those who stand up for human rights in Hong Kong,” Truss’s statement read in part. “Attempting to silence voices globally that speak up for freedom and democracy is unacceptable and will never succeed.”
The letter also asked Rogers to close down the Hong Kong Watch website. A statement released via Hong Kong Watch said the organization will continue “to be a voice for the people of Hong Kong."
Rogers later brushed off any concerns that this organization would shut down.
“No, we certainly won’t close down the organization or the website, and I think our role and our work is needed now more than ever. We are a British-based organization, we’re registered in the United Kingdom, our advocacy is around the world, but we don’t have any operations in Hong Kong itself or personnel or presence in Hong Kong at all,” he told VOA.
Rogers, 47, lived in Hong Kong between 1997 and 2002 and has long advocated for further democracy in the city.
His activism, however, has caught the attention of Hong Kong authorities before.
Rogers was denied entry into Hong King when he attempted to visit friends in 2017. Immigration officials at the Hong Kong International Airport refused to let Rogers into the territory, giving no explanation. The rejection prompted Rogers and others to form Hong Kong Watch in December of that year.
Following pro-democracy protests in 2019, Beijing implemented the national security law for Hong Kong in 2020, prohibiting acts deemed as supporting secession, subversion, terrorism or collusion with foreign forces.
The legislation has since been vigorously enforced, with authorities clamping down on at least 150 dissidents in the city, including dozens of Democratic lawmakers and political figures while at least 50 Hong Kong-based civil society groups have disbanded.
According to the security measure, anyone who violates the law worldwide can still face criminal prosecution.
Eric Yan-ho Lai, an analyst and fellow at Georgetown University Law School in Washington, said the far-reaching effects of the measure enforced by extradition agreements could see Rogers at risk if he travels overseas.
“Practically speaking, Mr. Rogers and/or his colleagues related to Hong Kong Watch could be arrested by National Security Police in Hong Kong, and it is possible that countries with extradition agreements with Hong Kong and/or China would be requested for extradition through the Interpol Red Notice or any direct request,” he told VOA.
Several countries including the United States and Britain have cancelled their extradition agreements with China since Hong Kong’s national security law came into effect. Countries in Europe, Africa and Asia all continue to hold extradition arrangements with the territory.
Hong Kong pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong found himself denied entry into Malaysia in 2015 and Thailand in 2016 and was both times deported to Hong Kong. Wong is currently serving time in prison for his role in the Hong Kong protests in 2019 and still faces charges under the national security law.
“In general, those countries that made extradition agreements with Hong Kong and/or China could be risky for him. Thailand would be a possible example given its track record of handling Joshua's entry.
“This is also a proper time for governments with extradition agreements with Hong Kong and/or China to review their agreements,” Yan-ho Lai added.