January 9, 2017 / 1:23 PM / 3 years ago

Hong Kong's legal elite voice autonomy fears after China intervention

HONG KONG (Reuters) - Leading Hong Kong lawyers voiced fresh concerns on Monday at China’s intervention in the territory’s judiciary, following a controversial move to ban pro-independence lawmakers by Beijing nearly two months ago.

Judges wearing wigs attend a ceremony to mark the beginning of the new legal year in Hong Kong, China January 9, 2017. REUTERS/Bobby Yip

Making its most direct intervention in Hong Kong’s legal and political system since the 1997 handover from Britain, China’s parliament on November 7 issued a ruling barring two elected, radical politicians from taking office.

Following a protracted period of political tension over Hong Kong’s democratic future, the move sparked fears for the city’s vaunted judicial freedoms and autonomy.

Beijing’s interpretation was unnecessary and political expedience “must not be given precedence over the rule of law,” Hong Kong Bar Association chairman Winnie Tam said at a ceremony to mark the start of the legal year.

Chief Justice Geoffrey Ma stopped short of directly referring to the interpretation, however, saying court proceedings were underway.

In some contentious, high-profile cases, balancing community interests and expectations was “somewhat difficult”, he said.

“What is important is that the judiciary and the judges in the discharge of their constitutional function adhere to very basic principles … one is the independence of the judiciary,” Ma told a rare news conference.

Despite broad concerns in the legal community, including a silent protest by about 2,000 lawyers last year, he added that he remained “confident” in the city’s judicial independence.

Beijing should not have got involved in the case, Justice Secretary Rimsky Yuen told judges clad in wigs and robes.

“Matters that can be properly handled within Hong Kong’s legal or judicial system should be left to be dealt with at the Hong Kong level as much as possible,” he said.

In 1997, Britain returned Hong Kong to Chinese control under a “one country, two systems” formula that gives the global financial hub wide-ranging autonomy, including judicial freedom.

The legal community remains concerned over Beijing’s growing reach into Hong Kong’s legal system, said pro-democracy lawyer Alan Leong.

“It reaffirmed the need to restrain the power to interpret the Basic Law,” he said, referring to Beijing’s ruling.

The Standing Committee of China’s National People’s Congress, acted under the Basic Law in making its ruling on the two lawmakers, Baggio Leung and Yau Wai-ching, after they mocked China in an abortive oath-taking ceremony last year.

The two were then disqualified from taking office, with a Hong Kong court ruling their oath of allegiance invalid in a judgment echoing Beijing’s ruling.

Reporting by James Pomfret and Venus Wu; Editing by Clarence Fernandez

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