In response to foreign and domestic criticism of the eroding legal liberties after the introduction of a national security law in 2020, a Hong Kong judge maintained the independence of the judiciary in the Chinese-ruled territory.
Judges in the Asian financial hub, according to Chief Justice Andrew Cheung, should disregard criticism that they had not kept political and personal opinions from clouding their decisions and could only make decisions based on the laws that were in front of them.
“Whether or not they were designated judges under the Hong Kong National Security Law, they have all faithfully and appropriately implemented the law in light of the evidence before them,” Cheung added.
His words were made at a ceremony to formally begin the new judicial year, which is expected to draw continued international attention as important national security issues go through the courts he is in charge of.
The national security law, which Beijing enacted in June 2020, was repeatedly cited as being necessary to regain peace after months of at times violent anti-government and pro-democracy protests shook the city in 2019.
Some diplomats, legal experts, and entrepreneurs are keeping a careful eye on the situation because they view the rule of law and judicial independence as the cornerstones of the freedoms and capitalist way of life Hong Kong was promised by Britain when it ceded its colony to China in 1997.
With strict bail restrictions and increased police powers under a judicial system that punishes subversion, terrorism, and coordination with foreign forces with up to life in jail, critics claim that the security law has jeopardized these freedoms.
Additionally, it gave the mayor of the city the authority to choose the judges who serve on the panel that hears national security cases.
Cheung stated at a press conference after the incident that “our court is quite independent in terms of exercising our judicial rights, we handle it very solemnly.”
In his speech, he outlined long-standing restrictions on Hong Kong’s courts, stating that they did not create the laws and that judges could not usurp judicial authority in accordance with the Chinese constitution and the “Basic Law” mini-constitution, which regulates the relationship between the city and mainland China.
Although local judges must apply a “liberal interpretation” to the fundamental rights of Hong Kong residents, most of these rights are not unalienable, he stressed.
Beijing has the ultimate power of interpretation under the Basic Law, which it used in late December to determine that the chief executive of Hong Kong has the authority to prohibit foreign attorneys from representing clients in national security situations.
After local courts repeatedly rejected attempts by the prosecution to bar British attorney Timothy Owen from defending media tycoon Jimmy Lai in a national security trial, the Hong Kong authorities requested the interpretation in November.
Lai, 75, is one of the most well-known Communist Party leadership critics in Hong Kong and the creator of the pro-democracy publication Apple Daily, which has since been shut down.
Following his conviction on two counts of fraud for concealing the activities of a private firm within the newspaper’s headquarters, which was deemed to be in violation of its land lease, he was given a sentence of five years and nine months in jail last month. He had refuted the allegations.