Cherish rule of law, says Hong Kong's senior judge

HONG KONG (Reuters) - Hong Kong’s most senior judge made a rare public plea on Monday for the rule of law to be protected amid often violent anti-China protests rocking the financial center since mid-2019.

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Hong Kong’s judiciary, which underpins the former British colony’s semi-autonomous status since returning to China in 1997, is facing the strain of more than 7,000 arrests at the youth-led demonstrations.

While some Hong Kong lawyers, politicians and activists fear judicial independence is under threat by meddling from the Communist Party leadership in Beijing, there is also pressure on courts to take a firm line against violence and vandalism at protests.

“The rule of law is rightly cherished by the community and is the foundation of a cohesive society,” Chief Justice Geoffrey Ma said during an event with Hong Kong and mainland Chinese lawyers as well some international jurists.

“We do all our best to preserve it and to treasure it because once damaged, this is not something from which our community can easily recover,” added Ma, who is usually reticent in public and steps down from his post at the end of this year.

Under Hong Kong’s post-1997 “One Country, Two Systems” model, Ma and his judges are widely seen as symbols of the special freedoms guaranteed for half a century that have helped make Hong Kong an attractive global investment hub.

With thousands of cases pending, both pro-Beijing figures and anti-government protesters have at times criticized the courts. Some demonstrators have lobbed petrol bombs at the Court of Final Appeal and sprayed graffiti on the High Court.

Ma confirmed internal discussions over how to manage the volume of looming cases, but said no decisions were finalised, stressing rights to fair trial and due process must be protected without any political bias.

Most of the cases were simply not ready for trial, he added. “One day we will be, that’s why we need to plan to deal with it,” he said. Most of those arrested are out on bail.

Speaking at the same event, Hong Kong Bar Association chairman Philip Dykes noted Hong Kong’s “extraordinary year” in 2019 and cited provisions allowing government prosecutors to drop cases in the public interest.

While some faced serious charges and potentially long sentences, many faced lesser public order offences, he said.

“They are all of them, in the main, of good character. They are representative of a large section of Hong Kong society.”

Ma’s successor, who is due to take office early next year, has yet to be announced.

Reporting by Greg Torode and Clare Jim in Hong Kong; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne