Hong Kong judge defends judiciary amid fears of ebbing independence

Hong Kong judge defends judiciary amid fears of ebbing independence

HONG KONG, Jan 16 (Reuters) – Hong Kong’s top judge defended the independence of the judiciary in the Chinese-ruled territory amid international and local criticism of deteriorating legal freedoms since a national security law was introduced in 2020.

Chief Justice Andrew Cheung said judges in the Asian financial hub could only rule according to the laws before them, had avoided political and personal views clouding their judgments and should ignore criticism that they hadn’t.

“Whether as designated judges under the Hong Kong National Security Law or not, they have all faithfully applied the law to the best of their ability, in accordance with the evidence presented before them,” Cheung said.

His remarks came at ceremony to formally open the legal year – a period set to see on-going international scrutiny as significant national security cases move up through the courts he oversees.

Hong Kong and Chinese government officials have repeatedly said the national security law, which Beijing imposed in June 2020, was needed to restore stability after months of sometimes-violent anti-government, pro-democracy protests rocked the city in 2019.

Some diplomats, legal scholars and businesspeople are watching developments closely, seeing judicial independence and the rule of law as the bedrock supporting the freedoms and capitalist way of life Hong Kong was promised when Britain handed over its colony to China in 1997.

Critics say that the security law has put those freedoms at risk with tough bail provisions and expanded police powers under a legal regime that punishes subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces with up to life imprisonment.

It also handed the city’s leader the power to select judges for the roster that handles national security cases.

“Our court is very independent in terms of exercising our judicial rights, we handle it very solemnly,” Cheung told a press conference after the event.

In his speech, he outlined long-standing limitations on Hong Kong’s courts, saying they did not make the laws and the judges could not usurp judicial powers under the Chinese constitution and “Basic Law” mini-constitution that governs the city’s relationship with mainland China.

While Hong Kong people’s fundamental rights must be given a “generous interpretation” by local judges, most were not absolute, he added.

The Basic Law grants Beijing the final power of interpretation, which it used in late December to rule that Hong Kong’s chief executive had the power to bar foreign lawyers from national security cases.

The Hong Kong government asked for the interpretation in November after local courts repeatedly blocked prosecution attempts to stop British lawyer Timothy Owen from defending media tycoon Jimmy Lai in a national security trial.

Lai, 75, is the founder of now shut pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily and one of the most prominent Hong Kong critics of China’s Communist Party leadership.

He was sentenced last month to five years and nine months in prison after being convicted on two counts of fraud for covering up the operations of a private company at the headquarters of the newspaper, in what was ruled a breach of its land lease. He had denied the charges.

Reporting by Greg Torode and Jessie Pang in Hong Kong; Editing by Nick Macfie

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

Desk Team

Desk Team