Hong Kong’s Lam says UK judge withdrawal ‘politically motivated’

Two British judges quit territory’s highest court citing the impact of the sweeping security law imposed by China.

Supreme Court judges in red robes, grey over shoulder sashes and long, curled, horse hair wigs stand with their backs to their camera at the opening of Hong Kong's legal year
Judges wearing wigs attend a ceremony to mark the beginning of the new legal year in Hong Kong [File: Bobby Yip/Reuters]

The departure of two senior British judges from Hong Kong’s highest court was politically motivated, Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam said on Thursday, saying that she was confident that judges at all levels of the territory’s court system would be free from political interference.

United Kingdom Supreme Court judges Robert Reed and Patrick Hodge, who sit on Hong Kong’s Court of Final Appeal (CFA) as part of their official duties, announced their resignations on Wednesday, citing the security law imposed by China in June 2020.

“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, who heads the UK’s Supreme Court, said in a statement.

UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said the situation had reached a “tipping point” and that it was “no longer tenable for British judges to sit on Hong Kong’s leading court” because of the risk that it would legitimise oppression.

“I can only draw the conclusion that there must be a lot of politics behind it,” Lam told reporters at her daily news briefing.

“I remain very confident that we still have very fine judges in the judiciary, both local and from overseas. Hong Kong will continue to benefit significantly.”

The UK has been under pressure to withdraw its judges from the court ever since China imposed the national security law, which outlaws acts Beijing deems to be secession, subversion, terrorism, and colluding with foreign forces.

Critics say the law has “decimated” the rights and freedoms China promised to honour for at least 50 years when it took back Hong Kong from the British in 1997, and criminalised dissent. Dozens of people, including activists, pro-democracy politicians and academics, have been arrested or gone into exile, while independent media have been forced to close.

Under the Basic Law – Hong Kong’s mini-constitution – senior judges from common law jurisdictions are able to sit as non-permanent members of the Court of Final Appeal.

There are currently 12 overseas non-permanent judges sitting on the court, eight of them British.

Canada’s Beverley McLachlin, a former chief justice who serves in a private role, and Australia’s Robert French have both said they will remain on the court despite the UK judges’ withdrawal.

“The court is operating as an independent, judicial branch of government – perhaps the last surviving strong institution of democracy,” McLachlin told Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper. “And it’s there for people to give them fair hearings and independent justice from the courts.”

Source: Al Jazeera