In a controversial move, the Legislative Council of Hong Kong passed a bill on Wednesday allowing local authorities to prevent overseas lawyers from participating in national security cases. Concurrently, Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jnr urged the swift completion of a code of conduct for the disputed South China Sea during the Southeast Asian leaders’ meeting in Indonesia this week.
The amendment introducing a two-stage vetting system in Hong Kong was proposed following the unsuccessful attempt by the government to prohibit Jimmy Lai Chee-ying, a jailed media mogul, from employing British barrister Timothy Owen to defend him in his trial over accusations of collusion with foreign entities. Under the new law, an international lawyer who wishes to represent a client in one of these sensitive cases must first secure a notice of permission from the chief executive before submitting a formal application to the Court of First Instance.
The new law has sparked criticism as it is seen as another step in Beijing’s efforts to exert control over Hong Kong’s legal system following the introduction of the national security law in 2020. Critics argue that the move undermines Hong Kong’s judicial independence and further erodes the territory’s autonomy.
Meanwhile, in Labuan Bajo, a fishing town in East Nusa Tenggara province of Indonesia, President Marcos expressed his concerns over the ongoing disputes in the South China Sea. He questioned why an agreement on the contested waters has remained out of reach despite longstanding efforts by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and China.
“Where are we having a hard time? How can we fix that problem? That’s what these meetings should be for. And I think we’ll get to that point because everybody wants this to work. Everybody wants to have a code of conduct,” Marcos stated on Tuesday. “So, what’s getting in the way? Let’s talk about it.”
The Philippine leader pointed out that the maritime disputes in the resource-rich waters between China and four ASEAN members, including the Philippines, would persist until a code of conduct was established. He also stated that the issue was complicated by China’s separate negotiations with ASEAN states. Marcos, however, expressed his opposition to setting a deadline for the talks with Beijing, which he said were making progress.
In March, the first round of discussions on the code of conduct under Indonesia’s ASEAN chairmanship did not produce a consensus due to persistent stakeholder disagreements.
Marcos also addressed the increasing tensions in the Taiwan Strait, which he described as a “grave concern” for ASEAN. He confirmed that the issue would be discussed during the three-day summit, which concludes on Thursday. “Considering that we agree on the concept of ASEAN centrality when it comes to regional concerns, that will be one of the most important subjects that we will bring up,” he asserted.
Beijing, which considers Taiwan a renegade province to be reunited with the mainland, even if force is required, has long resisted any external discussions on the matter.
In a strategic move, the Philippines expanded US access to four more military bases near the contentious Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea last month. This development escalates the total number of bases available to Washington for use in the Philippines to nine. The decision, however, has drawn criticism from China, which claims that the move is inflaming regional tension.
Amid these geopolitical issues, President Marcos also addressed the plight of Mary Jane Veloso, a Filipino national facing the death penalty in Indonesia since 2010 on drug trafficking charges. Marcos asserted his administration’s unwavering commitment to fight for Veloso’s freedom.
“The deadlock is that we persistently appeal for a commutation, pardon, or even extradition back to the Philippines. That request remains an ongoing concern,” Marcos explained.
Indonesia is known for implementing some of the most stringent anti-drug laws globally, and Veloso’s case serves as a stark reminder of the harsh penalties involved. Veloso was sentenced to death after being found with 2.6kg of heroin in her suitcase. She maintained her innocence, claiming she was deceived into smuggling narcotics by an international drug syndicate while she believed she was traveling to Indonesia for a domestic worker job.
Veloso, currently confined in a Yogyakarta prison, narrowly escaped execution by a firing squad in 2015. Her life was spared following Manila’s urgent request after an individual who Veloso accused of planting the drugs in her luggage turned herself into the police in the Philippines. Veloso’s case continues to be a sensitive issue between the Philippines and Indonesia as Manila advocates for her clemency.