Thu, Aug 03, 2006 - Page 5 News List

HK legislators debate tapping phones

BIG BROTHER With pro-government lawmakers in the majority, a new law allowing the monitoring of phone communications and other surveillance looks set to pass

AP , HONG KONG

A group of pro-democracy demonstrators march to government offices in Hong Kong on July 26. The protesters were urging Hong Kong Chief Eexecutive Donald Tsang to apologize for allowing police to carry out government wiretaps and called the Interception of Communications and Surveillance Bill unconstitutional.

PHOTO: AFP

Hong Kong lawmakers began a marathon debate yesterday on a bill that would regulate phone-tapping and other secret surveillance methods by authorities -- measures pro-democracy legislators say threaten civil liberties.

The legislature planned to spend the rest of the week considering the bill, which would likely be approved because pro-government lawmakers -- with more than half the votes -- have said they will support it.

So far, the proposed law hasn't stirred up major protests. But pro-democracy lawmaker Emily Lau (劉慧卿) said yesterday that doesn't mean the public supports it. She said people just haven't been paying attention to the legislation.

"If you tell them they will be put under surveillance and their communications will become intercepted, they will be very worried," she said.

"Once the bill is enacted, I'm sure many people will tell the [security] secretary that he will be taken to court. I see a big problem here," she said.

Another pro-democracy lawmaker, Lee Cheuk-yan (李卓人), said: "There's just a plain fact about this bill and it's about whether the people of Hong Kong trust the government."

He added, "From past history, we can say it isn't" trustworthy.

"The government might say it won't wiretap you for political reasons, but they might make up other reasons. They might say it's for public security," Lee said.

The bill proposes that a panel of judges approve law enforcement officials' applications to eavesdrop and that a separate judge should serve as an independent authority to oversee the process. Both bodies would be appointed by the city's leader, or chief executive.

Pro-democracy lawmakers argue this will mean a lack of judicial independence and checks on the leader's executive powers.

Media groups were also worried the measure could allow authorities to listen to conversations between reporters and their sources, or between lawyers and clients.

Legislators must vote on the final legislation by next Tuesday, when a court ruling that the existing arrangements are unconstitutional comes into effect. Lawmakers are expected to vote in the next three days after considering more than 200 amendments.

Last August, Chief Executive Donald Tsang (曾蔭權) issued an executive order allowing law enforcement agencies to eavesdrop electronically on suspects after courts rejected several cases because they violated the suspects' civil rights.

But High Court Judge Michael Hartmann ruled against Tsang's executive order in February, saying the parts of Hong Kong's telecommunications laws covering wire taps provide "open-ended power."

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