China in­ter­ven­tion roils wa­ters for HK top judge

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

Hong Kong Chief Jus­tice Geoffrey Ma, a bald, thick­set lawyer with a Churchillian air, is in the eye of a storm af­ter Bei­jing’s po­lit­i­cally charged in­ter­ven­tion in the city’s le­gal sys­tem, and those close to him say he is not a man to bend his prin­ci­ples. Ma, a pas­sion­ate cricket lover who stud­ied in the UK and was first called to the English bar, is pre­vented by con­ven­tion from pub­licly com­ment­ing on pol­i­tics, but Hong Kong’s Bar As­so­ci­a­tion has con­demned China’s move on Mon­day to ef­fec­tively bar two in­de­pen­dence-lean­ing law­mak­ers from tak­ing their seats in the city’s leg­is­la­ture. Hun­dreds of lawyers are plan­ning a silent march.

In pri­vate, Ma is aware of the con­cerns of se­nior judges about the risks of the city’s fledg­ling in­de­pen­dence move­ment and of Bei­jing’s de­ter­mi­na­tion to thwart it, sources close to them say. “He is a judge who has an al­most re­li­gious faith in the rule of law and all that springs from it,” said a source fa­mil­iar with Ma. “Sud­denly the Hong Kong sys­tem has been un­der­cut from above.” Ma leads an in­de­pen­dent ju­di­ciary that op­er­ates un­der com­mon law, orig­i­nally based on the case law of Eng­land, but is ul­ti­mately ac­count­able to a con­sti­tu­tional doc­u­ment, the Ba­sic Law, which gives Bei­jing fi­nal au­thor­ity since Bri­tain re­turned Hong Kong to China in 1997.

The doc­u­ment en­shrines Hong Kong’s ex­ten­sive free­doms, the rights of its law­mak­ers and cod­i­fies the city’s re­la­tion­ship with Bei­jing. China’s par­lia­ment, the Na­tional Peo­ple’s Congress (NPC), acted un­der the Ba­sic Law when it made its rul­ing con­cern­ing the two young law­mak­ers af­ter they mocked China dur­ing an abortive oath-tak­ing cer­e­mony last month. While the NPC has in­voked its right to in­ter­pret the Ba­sic Law four times in the past, this was the first time it has acted to pre-empt an on­go­ing court case, which is con­sid­er­ing the po­si­tion of the law­mak­ers.

As chief of Hong Kong’s pre-em­i­nent Court of Fi­nal Ap­peal, Ma, 60, sits at the top of the le­gal sys­tem, which some lawyers and politi­cians feel is un­der threat from China’s in­ter­ven­tion. Ma’s court could even­tu­ally be called on if the case against the young pair is ap­pealed. Le­gal ex­perts say judges are con­sti­tu­tion­ally obliged to take ac­count of Mon­day’s rul­ing from Bei­jing, though re­mov­ing a re­cal­ci­trant judge, par­tic­u­larly the Chief Jus­tice, would be a com­plex af­fair, re­quir­ing a panel of five judges ap­pointed by Hong Kong’s chief ex­ec­u­tive.

Ma and the ju­di­ciary did not re­spond to ques­tions from Reuters, filed through Hong Kong’s Depart­ment of Jus­tice, but his pre­vi­ous speeches have pointed to a de­ter­mi­na­tion to de­fend Hong Kong’s ju­di­cial in­de­pen­dence. In June, he told a le­gal cer­e­mony that spoke of ris­ing pres­sures on the ju­di­ciary. “Hong Kong’s courts now face more than at any other time in their his­tory chal­lenges which some­times as­sume sig­nif­i­cant po­lit­i­cal and so­cial di­men­sions,” he said, stress­ing that judges would re­main prin­ci­pled in ap­ply­ing the law. — Reuters

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