David Perry QC, the barrister acting for the Hong Kong government in its efforts to jail pro-democracy activists, is behaving in “a pretty mercenary way” and providing the Chinese government with a PR coup, the foreign secretary Dominic Raab said on Sunday.
Perry has agreed to represent the Hong Kong government in prosecuting nine activists, including the media proprietor Jimmy Lai, arising from demonstrations in August 2019. The trial is due to begin next month.
Perry has yet comment on his decision to take the case.
Raab, interviewed by Sophy Ridge on Sky, said: “I don’t understand how anyone of good conscience, from the world-leading legal profession that we have, would take a case where they will have to apply the national security legislation at the behest of the authorities in Beijing, which is directly violating, undermining the freedom of the people of Hong Kong.
“I understand in the case of Mr Perry, in relation to the pro-democracy activists, and of course from Beijing’s point of view, this would be a serious PR coup. There is no doubt in my mind that under the Bar code of ethics a case like this could be resisted and frankly, I think people watching this would regard it as pretty mercenary to be taking up that kind of case.”
Raab’s reference to the Bar code of ethics suggests Raab believes Perry has no obligation under the barrister’s so-called cab rank principle to take up this case after he was invited to do so.
Raab also said in relation to the Chinese treatment of the Uighur people that he did not believe it was right for the British high court to be given a role in determining whether acts of genocide may be under way in China or anywhere else.
Raab is trying to head off a backbench revolt over the issue when the trade bill returns to the Commons on Tuesday. The Board of Deputies of British Jews has written to Boris Johnson urging him to back the amendment and to recognise the parallels with between the treatment of the Uighur Muslims and the treatment of the Jews in the second world war.
Raab said he was deeply sympathetic to the plight of the Uighurs, but questioned whether the high court as opposed to a criminal court “has the investigative capacity to actually determine facts on the ground”.
The supporters of the so-called genocide amendment claim the high court has the evaluative powers to assess whether a genocide is under way, and that the court’s judgment should be taken into account by the government in deciding whether to pursue a free trade deal with a country committing such a genocide.
Raab also suggested it may be impossible for the British high court to have the investigate capacity to determine genocide, adding that it was for parliament and not the courts to hold the government to account over future free trade negotiations.
Although many human rights lawyers share Raab’s concern about the practicality of the proposal, and the high evidence threshold required to determine genocide, Raab’s difficulty is that the current international system for determining crimes against humanity or genocide is so broken that there is strong support in parliament in principle for introducing a domestic mechanism.
The outcome of the vote is claimed to be in the balance, and Raab in conjunction with the whips will have to decide whether the pressure is really such that he needs to offer a concession. Ministers will not like to see key planks of their policies relating to human rights, China or free trade driven by its back benches.