Hundreds of Hong Kong lawyers dressed in black have marched in silence to protest a recent Beijing policy statement they said undermines the Asian financial hub’s rule of law.
The demonstration late on Friday came ahead of the end of an unofficial referendum by activists calling for democratic reform in the former British colony. Voting in the poll ends on Sunday.
The protesters ended the march in front of the special Chinese administrative government’s top court, where the lawyers stood in silence for three minutes.
An estiminated 1,700 lawyers showed up, according to Dennis Kwok, a lawmaker representing the legal sector who led the protest. Police said 850 people were at the rally.
“I think the message is clear, that they expect judges to consider political issues when it comes to the adjudication of cases, and that is completely unacceptable under our system,” Kwok said.
Under the principle of “one country, two systems,” Hong Kong – unlike the mainland – is guaranteed civil liberties and independent courts.
But Beijing triggered a massive backlash when it released a policy statement earlier this month outlining its interpretation of the rules.
The statement left Hong Kong’s legal community fuming because it said “loving the country” was a requirement for judges, whom it characterised as part of the city’s administration, similar to senior officials, legislators and the city’s Beijing-backed leader.
Hong Kong’s Bar Association, which represents more than 1,000 barristers, has previously criticized Beijing’s stance, saying that categorising judges as administrators would send the message that the courts are not independent.
The Law Society, which represents 9,000 solicitors, has said rule of law and an independent judiciary are “indispensable and sacrosanct.”
In a statement, Hong Kong’s Justice Department said Friday that the policy document had “no intention to interfere with the rule of law and judicial independence.”
The timing of the document’s release was widely seen as a veiled threat from Beijing to Hong Kong ahead of an unofficial referendum by activists to bolster support for democratic reform.
About three-quarters of a million people have already cast ballots in the vote.