Australian judge quits Hong Kong court, citing national security law

HONG KONG/SYDNEY (Reuters) - One of the 14 foreign judges on Hong Kong’s highest court has resigned due to concerns over a sweeping new national security law imposed by Beijing on the city, Australia’s national broadcaster reported on Friday.

The office of the city’s leader Carrie Lam confirmed the resignation of Australian judge James Spigelman but did not give a reason.

Spigelman, the former chief justice of New South Wales, is the first senior judge to resign and publicly cite the law, passed by China’s parliament on June 30 without any Hong Kong legislative process or consultation.

The Polish-born jurist told the ABC that he had resigned for reasons “related to the content of the national security legislation” but did not elaborate further.

Spigelman did not immediately respond to a request from Reuters for comment.

Local and international legal circles have been alarmed at Beijing’s imposition of the security law, fearing it erodes the former British colony’s autonomy and freedoms.

Under the security legislation, Lam has the right to select judges for a panel of jurists to handle national security cases. In the most serious cases, suspects can also be taken to mainland China for trial in its courts, which are ultimately controlled by the Communist Party.

It also grants extensive powers to personnel from mainland China’s security apparatus, who are now based in the city for the first time under the law.

“Mr Justice Spigelman tendered to the Chief Executive on 2 September his resignation as a Non-Permanent Judge of the Court of Final Appeal, therefore the Chief Executive revoked his appointment in accordance with the relevant legislation,” Lam’s office responded in an email to queries about his departure.

Spigelman had been re-appointed to another three-year term last year.

Foreign judges have long been a symbol of the city’s rule of law, helping to replace the role of the Privy Council in London after Britain handed the city back to Chinese rule in 1997.

Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, known as the Basic Law, enshrines the independence of the judiciary and states that judges may come from other common law jurisdictions.

But Lam and her officials have in recent weeks stressed that the city had no “separation of powers”, and that the powers of its executive, legislature and judiciary all derived from Beijing.

Even before new laws were enacted, senior judges had told Reuters the independence of Hong Kong’s judicial system was under assault from the Communist Party leadership in Beijing.

Simon Young, a professor at the University of Hong Kong law school and a barrister, on Friday urged the government to name the judges cleared for national security work to stop possible speculation that foreign jurists were not welcome.

“The ball is clearly now in the government’s court to assure the public it still supports the system of foreign judges on Hong Kong’s apex court,” he said.

Senior barristers said they believed other senior judges were now considering their futures.

In July, the president of the UK Supreme Court said it was in discussions with the British government to assess the future of UK judges on Hong Kong’s top court. Robert Reed, who also serves on the Hong Kong court, said the new law “contains a number of provisions which give rise to concerns”.

Reporting By Greg Torode in Hong Kong and Swati Pandey in Sydney; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore