Since fleeing to Australia in March, he has lobbied the federal government to enact sweeping law reforms that will sanction human rights abusers from entering the country or investing in the national market.

Now, these historic reforms – the legislation for which is partly based on the United States’ Magnitsky Act – have received bipartisan support and passed in parliament on the final sitting day of the year this week. 

“We see that the government has the means and the tools to punish the wrongdoers, the human rights abusers. They will now be punished and excluded from the Australian system,” Mr Hui told SBS News.

What are the ‘Magnitsky’ laws?

The US Maginstky Act is named after Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky who died in custody in 2009 after investigating Russian officials for tax fraud.

His death prompted activist Bill Browder to lead a push for the US to enforce the Magnitsky Act, which was adopted in 2012 in honour of his former lawyer.

Source: AP

Under the proposed Australian legislation, the Magnitsky-style laws will make it easier for the government to slap sanctions on human rights abusers, cyber attackers and corrupt officials from entering the country.

Measures can include placing travel restrictions on offenders, seizing their assets and restricting investments within Australia’s financial institutions.

🇦🇺 promotes & defends human rights, a rules-based order, peace & security. Today we join the #Magnitsky movement. Parliament has passed the Morrison Government’s bill enabling 🇦🇺 in a timely way to sanction perpetrators of serious human rights abuses, corruption & cyber attacks.

“The bill … is timely for Australia to ensure that we do not become an isolated, attractive safe haven for such people and entities, and their illegal gains,” Minister for Foreign Affairs Marise Payne said in a statement.

It could also have the power to target immediate family members of offenders, as well as their beneficiaries based in Australia.

Source: Supplied/Rawan Arraf

The Australian Centre of International Justice (ACIJ) found human rights abusers were “benefiting from corruption” by enjoying freedoms in Australia.

“These offenders are using Australia’s financial markets to deposit their investments, buy homes, their children are enrolled in the best universities,” ACIJ executive director Rawan Arraf said.

Which other countries have adopted Magnitsky-style laws?

Since the US passed the Magnitsky Act in 2012, others including Canada, the United Kingdom and the European Union followed suit, creating similar laws for their respective jurisdictions.

Together, the countries act in concert to exert pressure on individuals and entities that are stakeholders in serious human rights violations.

The global sanctions regime gathered momentum in March this year as the countries imposed designations on two Chinese officials over human rights violations faced by Uighurs in China’s Xinjiang province.

“These global Magnitsky-style sanctions … create a really powerful impact and consequences for human rights abusers and corrupt people,” Ms Arraf said.

But Australia stopped short of imposing sanctions. Instead, Ms Payne released a joint statement with New Zealand condemning China’s actions.

Ms Arraf said the government’s delay in implementing the Magnitsky-style laws was “extremely disappointing”.

“We’ve seen Australia drag its feet … the whole point of these sanctions is for all countries to act in concert together.”

Doesn’t Australia already have measures to impose sanctions?

Australia does have some laws in place, but human rights advocates say they aren’t nearly strong enough.

Australia’s current legislation, the Autonomous Sanctions Act, limits the government to impose sanctions on states, Now, persons or entities could be placed on a sanctions list after a government review.

The government’s proposed reforms are also set to be the first of their kind in the world to include cyber attackers in its list of people or entities that can be sanctioned.

Why is this so important?

After Hong Kong’s national security laws were passed in 2020, Mr Hui said he was left with two choices: either live in exile or be thrown into prison.

“That’s the situation I face and that’s the situation faced by many of my comrades and freedom fighters in Hong Kong.”

Source: Getty Images/AFP

He said for many diaspora communities, such laws carry great symbolic significance.

“We face police brutality, we face all the freedoms being taken away and our friends and families are locked up in jail. Now [Beijing and Hong Kong] has to pay for what they have done in terms of what they have in Australia.”

“This is a punishment. This is a lesson. This is a message to those human rights abusers that it will not be tolerated, at least not by Australia.”

When international criminal justice cannot be obtained, Ms Arraf says sanctions serve as an alternative tool to condemn offenders.

I’ll always remember this day.

It took years & so many dedicated people who dared dream big about Australia’s commitment to human rights.

All our parties, who disagree so much, Labor, Liberals & the Greens all voted in the Senate to pass Australian #Magnitsky laws. #auspol

“These types of targeted sanctions are one tool in a huge accountability toolbox where others are accountability mechanisms aren’t available,” Ms Arraf said.

“The fact that they will be cut off from those luxuries that they seek to enjoy in these Western countries has a really important benefit to victims.

“They’ll know that these people are not enjoying impunity all around the world.”

What about the criticisms of the laws?

The ACIJ harbours concerns about how the Magnitsky-style laws will be applied in practice in Australia.

Ms Payne has said the laws will be used in line with Australia’s foreign policies – a move that has disappointed Ms Arraf.

“We [ACIJ] have said from the outset that this law should not be based on Australia’s foreign policy, it should be a human rights principled approach.”

That means human rights abusers around the world that are not recognised by Australia’s foreign ministry may fall short of being placed on the sanctions list.

“There are perpetrators in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Israel and Myanmar that Australia may not recognise as offenders under their objectives, and that is extremely disappointing”.

A new targeted human rights sanctions regime will soon be a reality in #Australia. However, the proposed model is not strong enough, we’re pushing for amendments to broaden the scope of rights violations that should be sanctioned. #MagnitskyAct #auspol #auslaw

But Ms Arraf is hopeful the government will work together with organisations and diaspora communities to ensure justice is served.

“Civil society will engage with the mechanism seriously and we hope that, in turn, the government will also return that favour and also undertake a really important consultative process.”

What happens next?

Once the laws are passed, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade can consider applications to impose designations of persons or entities.

Mr Hui and his team of pro-democracy Hong Kong advocates say they are already prepared.

“We have been collecting data of and updating our records as to which officials have done human rights abuses,” he said.

“We’ll be getting it organised and ready to submit to relevant departments in the government so that they can compile their own sanction lists to put them for consideration.”