Human Rights Watch today condemned a draft law the Hong Kong government is rushing through the Beijing-selected legislature as an exceptionally grave setback to the rule of law in China's new Special Administrative Region (S.A.R). The bill would have the effect of exempting both the S.A.R. government and organs of the Chinese government from many local laws. The law, which was being rushed through the appointed legislature's last session today, has been described by the government as merely "technical" but has far-reaching implications. It could mean, for example, that a government official or agency accused of committing an offense against a citizen could be exempt from prosecution.

"This bill essentially reverses the very premise upon which Hong Kong's legal structure and legal future are grounded, that is, the presumption that government is accountable under the law," said Sidney Jones, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch's Asia division. "Once that principle is eroded, the protection of human rights is in grave jeopardy." The draft follows on two recent controversial decisions not to prosecute violations of local law. In one, the Xinhua News Agency, China's front for Communist Party leadership in Hong Kong, refused to turn over files on pro-democracy activist and former legislator Emily Lau as it was required to do under Hong Kong's Privacy Law. In a second, the government refused to prosecute Sally Aw, publisher of the Hong Kong Standard and member of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Committee, who was accused of fraud.

Local human rights monitors and pro-democracy groups, including leaders of the Democratic Party, have criticized the bill as contrary to the letter and spirit of both the Sino-British treaty governing the handover of Hong Kong and the Basic Law, Hong Kong's "mini-constitution," both of which require executive authorities to abide by the law. It is highly unlikely that this bill, once passed by the appointed provisional legislature, can be overturned, as the new electoral laws make it unlikely that members of pro-democracy parties will ever regain control of the legislature.