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Monday, August 07, 2006

Hong Kong Passes Controversial Spy Bill

HONG KONG (AP) -- Hong Kong's legislature on Sunday passed a law regulating phone tapping and other surveillance measures, a move critics fear will curtail civil liberties in the former British colony now ruled by China

Hong Kong's pro-democracy opposition of 25 members boycotted the vote, staging a walkout. The measure passed 32-0 after a marathon debate that began Wednesday.

Journalist groups fear authorities can now intercept conversations between reporters and their sources, or lawyers and their clients.

Hong Kong Secretary for Security Ambrose Lee said the new law is crucial for the territory's public safety.

"This piece of legislation is very important to maintain the good law and order of Hong Kong," he said. "I wish to assure the residents of Hong Kong that the law now is a good balance between effective law enforcement on the one hand and the protection of privacy on the other."

The law requires any surveillance operation to be approved by judges appointed by Hong Kong's leader. Opposition legislators argue such a system of checks isn't independent enough.

Hong Kong lawmakers and the government were in a hurry to pass the legislation because a court ruling that rejects existing arrangements as unconstitutional takes effect Tuesday.

Opposition legislator James To complained that the government was unresponsive to critics' worries.

"This was like debating with a wall," he grumbled during the final hours of debate.

Hong Kongers have been especially wary of intrusions into their civil rights since the former British territory return to Chinese sovereignty in 1997.

The local constitution promises a semiautonomous government and Western-style civil liberties commonly denied in mainland China, but many are fearful that Beijing's authoritarian regime will gradually tighten its grip on the territory.

A proposed national security law also seen as a threat to freedoms was shelved after half a million people protested in 2003.
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