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UK judges resign from Hong Kong court over security law

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By Reuters
UK judges quit Hong Kong court over new security law
UK judges quit Hong Kong court over new security law   -   Copyright  Thomson Reuters 2022

By Michael Holden and Greg Torode

LONDON -Two senior British judges, including the president of the UK Supreme Court, announced their resignation from Hong Kong’s highest court, saying their role was untenable because of a security law China imposed on the former British colony.

Robert Reed, who heads Britain’s top judicial body, said on Wednesday that he and colleague Patrick Hodge would relinquish their roles as non-permanent judges on the Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal (HKCFA).

“I have concluded, in agreement with the government, that the judges of the Supreme Court cannot continue to sit in Hong Kong without appearing to endorse an administration which has departed from values of political freedom, and freedom of expression,” Reed said in a statement.

“Lord Hodge and I have accordingly submitted our resignations as non-permanent judges of the HKCFA with immediate effect.”  

Britain, which ruled Hong Kong for over 150 years until handing it back to China in 1997, has said a sweeping security law imposed on the territory by Beijing two years ago was a breach of the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration that paved the way for the handover.

Beijing says the law is needed to bring stability to Hong Kong after it was rocked by protracted and sometimes violent anti-government protests in 2019, and that the legislation includes human rights safeguards.

Neither Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam nor the Chief Justice Andrew Cheung immediately responded to Reuters’ requests for comment.

PRESSURE ON OTHERFOREIGNJUDGES

British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said Hong Kong had witnessed “a systematic erosion of liberty and democracy.”

“The situation has reached a tipping point where it is no longer tenable for British judges to sit on Hong Kong’s leading court, and (this) would risk legitimising oppression,” she added

Truss had this month criticised Hong Kong authorities for accusing a British-based human rights groups of colluding with foreign forces in a “likely” violation of the security law.

In a report on Hong Kong last December, she said that while judicial independence was increasingly finely balanced, she believed British judges could still “play a positive role in supporting this judicial independence”.

The presence of foreign judges in Hong Kong is enshrined in the Basic Law, the mini-constitution that guarantees the global financial hub’s freedoms and extensive autonomy under Chinese rule, including the continuation of Hong Kong’s common law traditions forged during the British colonial era.

Reed has previously said he would not serve on the HKCFA in the event the judiciary in the city was undermined.

Local lawyers said the resignations would likely put pressure on the 10 other foreign Court of Final Appeal judges to quit.

Those judges, from Britain, Canada and Australia, are all retired senior jurists in their home countries, unlike Reed and Hodge, who were still serving.

“It is a big blow to the local fraternity and the grand tradition of Hong Kong’s rule of law,” one veteran barrister told Reuters. “For all the pressures ahead, we really needed them and I fear what comes next.”

In a statement on Wednesday, Hong Kong Law Society president Chan Chak Ming urged Reed and Hodge to reconsider their moves, saying it “disappointingly falls short” of the support among the public and legal community for the continued role of overseas judges.