The exodus of foreign judges in Hong Kong worries the city’s chief executive

Three more senior foreign judges have stepped down from Hong Kong’s highest court, the Court of Appeal, amid concerns about the courts’ independence from China.

One of Britain’s three high-profile judges, 75-year-old Lord Jonathan Sumption, who resigned on Thursday, said on Monday that judges were being compromised by the “impossible political environment created by China”.

“Hong Kong, once a vibrant and politically diverse community, is slowly becoming a totalitarian state. The rule of law is under deep threat in all areas on which the government has strong opinions,” he wrote in an opinion piece for The. Financial Times..

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Lord Sumption noted that “if China doesn’t like the court’s decisions, it can invalidate them through ‘interpretation’ by the standing committee of the National People’s Congress in Beijing,” adding that judges must face “authorities’ paranoia.”

Beijing imposed a highly controversial national security law on Hong Kong in 2020 following unrest the previous year.

A British judge said: “The violent riots that occurred in 2019 were shocking, but Hong Kong’s ordinary law was more than adequate to deal with them.”

However, the police shutdown of pro-democracy media and prosecution of their editors for sedition, and the disbanding of campaign groups and arrest of their leaders created an “oppressive atmosphere” that intimidated local judges.

The other two justices who stepped down were Lawrence Collins, another British Supreme Court justice who also blamed the “political situation in Hong Kong,” and Beverley McLachlin, a former chief justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, who said Monday she wanted to spend more time with family, BBC reported.

Their departure means six senior foreign judges have resigned since China imposed its security laws on the former British colony four years ago, he said.

Hong Kong’s CEO responds

Sumption’s comments, which seem slightly stronger than those of others who have stepped down in recent years, were met with a lengthy response from Hong Kong’s chief executive, John Lee, who said the judges were professional but “their expertise is not based on politics “.

“A judge may not like a political system (or) a particular piece of legislation, but when a judge’s expertise is at stake, he or she should be guided by the evidence and the law in correctly interpreting the law, regardless of personal political views,” Lee said.

Sumption’s comments included criticism of the verdict last month in the “Hong Kong 47” trial involving people from the pro-democracy movement.

Fourteen of the 16 people who pleaded not guilty to national security charges related to the organization of the 2020 primary elections were convicted, according to a panel of hand-picked judges. Guardian. They hoped to win a majority of seats in Hong Kong’s parliament, which would enable them to block the budget and force the chief executive to resign.

Sumption said the decision was “legally indefensible” because Hong Kong’s constitution “expressly empowers” lawmakers to reject government budgets.

He remained in court in the hope that the presence of foreign judges would help maintain the rule of law, he said, but now he felt it was “no longer realistic.”

The latest resignations come after the Hong Kong Freedom Committee Foundation, an NGO, published a report last month that said “foreign judges are legitimizing Beijing’s suppression of political freedoms in Hong Kong” – and called on them to resign.


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Jim Pollard

Jim Pollard is an Australian journalist living in Thailand since 1999. He worked for News Ltd newspapers in Sydney, Perth, London and Melbourne before traveling around South East Asia in the late 1990s. He was a senior editor at The Nation for over 17 years.