Swiss perspectives in 10 languages

Hong Kong rule of law ‘profoundly compromised’, says British judge who quit post there

reuters_tickers

By William James and James Pomfret

LONDON/HONG KONG (Reuters) – The rule of law in Hong Kong is profoundly compromised in areas where the government has strong opinions, a British judge who resigned last week from the top Hong Kong appeals court said on Monday.

Jonathan Sumption is one of two British judges who resigned shortly after a landmark verdict in which 14 prominent democratic activists were convicted for subversion amid a national security crackdown on dissent.

Some lawyers say the resignations challenge the assumption, long held by some legal professionals, that having foreign jurists on the top court helps protect the city’s international image after China imposed a national security law on Hong Kong in 2020 in response to mass pro-democracy protests.

Explaining his eventual decision to resign, Sumption said Hong Kong authorities were paranoid about political dissent.

“Hong Kong, once a vibrant and politically diverse community, is slowly becoming a totalitarian state. The rule of law is profoundly compromised in any area about which the government feels strongly,” Sumption wrote in an editorial published on the Financial Times website.

Sumption told the BBC on Tuesday that the 14 convictions were “the last straw”, and a “major indication of the lengths to which some judges are prepared to go to ensure Beijing’s campaign against those who have supported democracy succeeds”.

He said that some judges quit on their own, but that the current president and deputy president of the United Kingdom’s Supreme Court, who resigned from Hong Kong’s judiciary in 2022, did so “under pressure from the UK government”.

Hong Kong’s chief judge Andrew Cheung thanked Sumption for his past work in a statement, while noting that “a tension often exists between protection of fundamental rights and safeguarding national security, both of which the Hong Kong Judiciary is firmly committed to doing.”

NO POLITICAL EXPERTISE

Hong Kong’s leader John Lee disagreed with Sumption’s comments and said judges did not have expertise in political matters. He also accused Britain and other countries of attempting to interfere in Hong Kong’s legal affairs.

Chinese and Hong Kong authorities say the national security law is necessary and has brought stability.

“Some UK officials and politicians try to weaponise the UK’s judicial influence to target China and HKSAR (Hong Kong)” Lee told reporters, adding the city’s rule of law remains strong.

“A judge is entitled to his personal political preferences, but that is not a judge’s area of professional expertise.”

While some departing foreign judges on the top court have voiced concerns at Hong Kong’s tightened security laws, none has gone as far as Sumption.

The resignations swell the number of British jurists who have severed ties to Hong Kong’s highest court amid a years-long crackdown on dissent under the mainland’s national security law.

Another judge on the court, Canada’s Beverley McLachlin, announced on Monday that she would step down when her three-year term expired on July 29.

Britain, which handed Hong Kong back to China in 1997, has said the security law that punishes offences such as subversion with terms of up to life in jail has been used to curb dissent and freedom.

Many of Hong Kong’s democratic campaigners have been arrested, detained or forced into exile, civil society groups have been shuttered and liberal media outlets forced to close.

Last month, 14 pro-democracy activists were found guilty and two acquitted in the landmark subversion trial that critics say further undermined the city’s rule of law and its reputation as a global financial hub.

The verdicts in Hong Kong’s biggest trial against the democratic opposition came more than three years after police arrested 47 democratic activists in dawn raids on homes across the city.

“The real problem is that the decision is symptomatic of a growing malaise in the Hong Kong judiciary,” Sumption wrote.

Deeply Read

Most Discussed

SWI swissinfo.ch - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI swissinfo.ch - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR