Hong Kong lawyers take stand for independence from Beijing

HONG KONG August 15 Fri Aug 15, 2014 4:10am EDT

Barristers, solicitors and other members from the legal profession, wearing black, take part in a march of silence in Hong Kong in this June 27, 2014 file photo.  REUTERS/Bobby Yip/Files

Barristers, solicitors and other members from the legal profession, wearing black, take part in a march of silence in Hong Kong in this June 27, 2014 file photo.

Credit: Reuters/Bobby Yip/Files

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HONG KONG August 15 (Reuters) - Hong Kong's Law Society has passed an historic vote of no-confidence in its president over pro-Beijing comments, revealing a determination by the traditionally conservative lawyers to confront perceived threats from China to the legal independence in the free-wheeling, global financial hub.

President Ambrose Lam has angered many of the society's 8,000 members with his support of controversial statements from Beijing that Hong Kong judges needed to be patriotic, and his open support for the Communist Party of China.

The vote late on Thursday night surprised even those behind the no-confidence motion such as lawyer Kevin Yam, who said some lawyers faced intense pressure from mainland-linked firms to back Lam and he was not confident of success ahead of the poll.

"I'm very pleased that people have shown that they will stand up and be counted, despite considerable pressure in some cases," Yam said. "Solicitors, in everything they do, have got to exercise independent professional judgment yet if we are cowed over an internal matter of the Law Society, what sort of message does that send? ... Our political neutrality is everything."

Lam stayed silent at the impassioned closed-door meeting on Thursday night that drew an estimated 800 lawyers - 10 percent of the society's membership. He has yet to say whether he will resign over the non-binding vote.

Hong Kong was handed over to China in 1997 with the international promise that its extensive commercial and social freedoms - underpinned by an independent British-styled judiciary - would remain unfettered for 50 years under the "one country, two systems" formula.

That legal system has proved a lightning-rod for wider concerns at increased meddling by Beijing in recent months, including the publication of a white paper by China's State Council that stated "loving the country" was a basic requirement for city administrators, including judges.

Lam has repeatedly defended the policy document as a "positive document" amid intense debates and street protests by Hong Kong's influential legal community, at one point telling a radio station of his admiration for the "great" Communist Party of China, further inflaming many lawyers in the city.

Hong Kong's former top judge, Andrew Li, on Friday expressed "great concern" at the document's demand that judges be patriotic. "Under the principle of judicial independence, judges should not be pro or anti anyone or anything," Li wrote in a rare commentary in the South China Morning Post newspaper.

Critics of the white paper say it could be taken to mean that Hong Kong judges will be expected to side with the government in sensitive cases, or even toe the Communist Party line and that could be difficult for non-Chinese judges.

Four of 11 judges on the Court of Appeal hail from abroad, while a dozen foreign jurists have been invited to sit occasionally on the Court of Final Appeal, Hong Kong's highest court.

"How do you expect a foreign judge to owe allegiance to China?" asked Martin Lee, Hong Kong's most senior barrister, and a former leader of the Democratic Party.

With Beijing demanding that only candidates screened by an election committee can run in Hong Kong's first election for its top leader in 2017, some observers see an independent judiciary as a guarantee of its unique status as key business center.

(This corrected version of the story fixes name of Law Society president in second paragraph to Ambrose).

(Editing by Michael Perry)

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