/ 30 March 2009

Hong Kong defers on Grace Mugabe immunity

Hong Kong must defer to China’s decision to grant immunity to Zimbabwean first lady Grace Mugabe over her alleged attack on a British photographer because Beijing is in charge of foreign affairs, the territory’s justice secretary said on Monday.

Legislators in this former British colony expressed frustration at Hong Kong’s lack of recourse against the alleged assault in January by the wife of Zimbabwe’s authoritarian leader.

Britain returned Hong Kong to China in 1997. The territory retains separate political, legal and economic systems from the mainland, but its Constitution states that Beijing handles its foreign relations.

Photographer Richard Jones alleges that Mugabe punched him in the face repeatedly when he was taking pictures of her near a luxury hotel on January 15 for London’s Sunday Times, inflicting at least 10 cuts with the diamond-encrusted rings she was wearing. Mugabe was reportedly vacationing in the Chinese-ruled territory.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry’s Hong Kong office told the local government that Mugabe enjoys immunity in the territory as the wife of a foreign head of state, Hong Kong Secretary for Justice Wong Yan-lung told a legislative hearing on Monday.

”The issue of privileges and immunities is a matter of foreign affairs, which is the sole responsibility of the Central People’s Government,” Wong said.

Wong added that he had relayed outrage in Hong Kong about the attack to the Chinese government. But lawmakers questioned if that was enough.

”You say the consequence is that you relayed Hong Kong’s concerns about this matter to the Chinese government. Is that it? Even if someone dies, do you just report it to the teacher like a good student? Is that it?” legislator Miriam Lau asked.

”The crux of the problem is what Hong Kong can do. If the answer is the only thing Hong Kong can do is express its concerns to the central government, Hong Kong citizens will think that’s insufficient,” pro-democracy lawmaker Margaret Ng said.

Legislators earlier had urged the local government to ban Mugabe from visiting Hong Kong again, but Wong said on Monday that the territory doesn’t have the right to impose a ban without China’s approval.

Asked by the Associated Press after the meeting, Wong also declined to say if the government had enough evidence to prosecute Mugabe if it were permitted to do so.

Calls to the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s Hong Kong office late on Monday went unanswered.

Mugabe’s 85-year-old husband, Robert Mugabe, has been accused of overseeing his country’s economic collapse, trampling democratic rights and killing opposition supporters.

The United States, the European Union and Britain have imposed sanctions on Mugabe’s ruling clique, including asset freezes and travel bans.

China has been criticised for supporting corrupt African regimes, including those in Sudan and Zimbabwe, amid its growing presence there.

In July Beijing, along with Russia, vetoed a US-sponsored resolution in the United Nations Security Council that proposed worldwide sanctions against Mugabe and 13 officials. — Sapa-AP