Australia has shelved plans to ratify a controversial extradition treaty with Beijing following concerns raised by lawmakers over inadequate protections for human rights and rule of law in China.
The decision to pull the parliamentary vote on Wednesday represents a setback for the Australian government, which had warned in recent days that failing to ratify the treaty could damage Sino-Australian relations.
Barnaby Joyce, Australia’s deputy prime minister, said a decision by the opposition Labor party to oppose ratification of the treaty was “crazy” and could enable Chinese criminals to seek sanctuary in Australia.
“As sure as God made green little apples, there are people in China that think the way they can get out of a crime is to get on a plane and get to somewhere else as quickly as possible,” he told Australian radio on Tuesday morning.
“That doesn’t mean they didn’t commit a crime in China,” he added. “The minister at any point of time can say no, we’re not going to extradite that person. I think that’s a pretty safe deal, and that’s the way it should work.”
But minutes after Mr Joyce defended the treaty, the government withdrew the vote in parliament.
The failure to pass the extradition treaty comes just days after Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s state visit to Australia, where he emphasised the importance of co-operation to tackle cross-border crime. Beijing is making a diplomatic push to clinch treaties with western powers as part of his signature anti-corruption campaign, which is targeting hundreds of officials who have allegedly fled overseas with illicit funds.
Australia would have been the first of the so-called “five eyes” intelligence alliance countries to ratify an extradition treaty with China if the parliamentary vote scheduled for Wednesday had passed. But a decision by Labor to oppose the ratification as well as a backbench revolt from a handful of lawmakers in the Liberal-National coalition forced the government to cancel the vote in the Senate, which would almost certainly have resulted in an embarrassing defeat.
Human rights groups welcomed the decision on Tuesday, saying safeguards in the treaty were not sufficient and China needed to reform its justice system before extradition agreements were be considered.
Elaine Pearson, Australia director of Human Rights Watch, said recent cases of Australians detained in China highlighted the acute problems in China’s opaque criminal justice system.
Chinese authorities have detained 14 employees of Australian gaming company Crown Resorts since October and in recent days prevented Feng Chongyi, a professor at University of Technology Sydney, from leaving China following a work trip — Mr Feng had published research critical of Beijing’s growing influence in Australia.
As sure as God made green little apples, there are people in China that think the way they can get out of a crime is to get on a plane and get to somewhere else as quickly as possible
“When Premier Li was here, it was a prime opportunity to put those issues on the table, yet the public discussions with Turnbull seemed to focus squarely on trade, with no mention of human rights,” said Ms Pearson.
Australia first signed the extradition treaty with China in 2007 but successive governments failed to enact the regulations enabling it to enter into force because of concerns over China’s human rights record. However, a parliamentary committee in December recommended ratifying the treaty, saying there were sufficient safeguards for human rights.
China is negotiating extradition treaties to aid in its “fox hunt” of corrupt officials who have fled abroad, the most recent catch being a tax official who hid in Zimbabwe. “An extradition treaty between China and Australia will provide a systematic guarantee for the joint crackdown on transnational crime and promote judicial cooperation between the two countries,” a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson said on Tuesday.
But the politically-motivated nature of many Chinese investigations, the lack of legal protections and the frequent reliance on forced confessions for convictions have made certain countries reluctant to hand people over to Chinese authorities.
France and Spain have already ratified extradition treaties with China, while Canada and New Zealand are considering requests from Beijing to do the same. The “five eyes” is an alliance comprising the US, the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
Julie Bishop, Australia’s foreign minister, said the government would continue talks with the opposition on ratifying the treaty, which she added remained in Australia’s “national interest”.
Additional reporting by Lucy Hornby and Sherry Ju in Beijing
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