Hong Kong authorities have condemned calls on the US government to sanction 29 Hong Kong judges in order to “counter the erosion of democratic freedoms.” Such appeals amounted to making a “shameless, sinister and malicious” attempt to interfere with the city’s judicial process, it said.

Judges Judiciary
Hong Kong judges. File photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

It was “most despicable” for a staff research report by the US Congressional-Executive Commission on China to name Hong Kong judges and asked for sanctions to be imposed, the Hong Kong government said in a strongly-worded statement issued last Friday.

The report titled “One City, Two Legal Systems: Hong Kong Judges’ Role in Rights Violations under the National Security Law,” was published last Thursday. Hong Kong slammed it as making “slandering remarks and despicable threats” against the city’s judges.

The Hong Kong government also condemned a hearing in Washington held last Thursday, when four activists – including the son of pro-democracy media mogul Jimmy Lai – gave testimony on “political prisoners” in the city.

“The threat is a shameless, sinister and malicious attempt to put spiteful pressure on judges in the HKSAR, to interfere with the judicial process in the HKSAR, and to undermine the system for the administration of justice in the HKSAR,” the statement read.

‘Parallel legal system’

The US commission accused Hong Kong judges of playing a role in establishing a “de facto parallel legal system” under the Beijing-enacted national security law, where procedural rights such as trial by jury and presumption of innocence were “routinely violated.”

Judiciary Court of Final Appeal law legal system
The Court of Final Appeal in Hong Kong. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

The 18-page document included a list of 29 local judges known to have presided over cases concerning national security. The panel described the selection process of designated national security as “opaque,” adding that the Office of the Chief Executive refused to disclose the full list. The mechanism lacked transparency and diminished people’s trust in the judiciary, the report claimed.

“The United States Government should consider imposing sanctions on judges to counter the erosion of democratic freedoms in Hong Kong,” the report read.

Calls on overseas governments to impose sanctions on Hong Kong and China are considered to be collusion with foreign forces, criminalised under the national security law. The sweeping security legislation also targets secession, subversion and terrorist activities.

The Hong Kong government defended the procedure allowing the city’s leader to establish a list, or panel, of judges for handling cases involving national security. The Judiciary would exercise its functions independently in relation to the listing and handling of cases, as well as the assignment of judges, it said.

It also took aim at Sebastien Lai, son of jailed Apple Daily founder Jimmy Lai. The 75-year-old is set to face a national security trial in September, and his son told the Congressional-Executive Commission on China that the upcoming hearing was a “foregone conclusion.” The family expected to see a lengthy sentence, possibly life imprisonment, for the media tycoon, Sebastien Lai said.

Sebastien Lai
Sebastien Lai, son of media mogul Jimmy Lai, attends a hearing held by the US Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC) on May 11, 2023. Photo: CECC YouTube screenshot.

“The case against my father symbolises just how broken the legal system is in Hong Kong and it should be a warning to all business people that it is not business as usual in Hong Kong,” he said.

He went on to thank Washington for taking a strong stance against his father’s prosecution and expressed disappointment in the UK authorities for not taking a “stronger stance.”

“To this day, the UK government has not condemned what happened to my father or even calls for his release. I am alarmed by this. My father is British citizen, I am a British citizen, why won’t the British government call for his release?” he asked.

The comments from Lai’s son were an attempt to “solicit foreign political powers to procure a defendant’s evasion of the criminal justice process,” the Hong Kong government said. It also hit out at solicitor Kevin Yam, ex-convenor of the defunct Progressive Lawyers Group, who also attended the hearing in Washington.

“It is equally outrageous that Kevin Yam, a solicitor of the High Court of Hong Kong, saw it fit to join this political farce to slander, and support the so-called ‘sanctions’ against, the very court of which he is an officer,” the government statement read.

The Judiciary also strongly condemned the report last Friday, saying any suggestion involving the imposition of sanctions would amount to “an attempt to exert improper pressure” on judges and judicial officers, including the designated judges under the national security law.

National security law
Photo: GovHK.

It added that judges and judicial officers could “did “not control what cases were brought before them,” but once a case was brought before the court, it must be handled “strictly in accordance with law.”

“Any such attempt is a flagrant and direct affront to the rule of law and judicial independence in Hong Kong, as well as the [judges and judicial officers] concerned, which is totally unacceptable,” the Judiciary said.

Also last Friday, the Hong Kong Bar Association expressed “grave concerns” over the calls for sanctions on judges, which it deemed as effectively seeking to interfere with the exercise of independent judicial power.

Pointing to a statement issued last year when the congressional body made similar calls, the organisation representing local barristers said any attempts to interfere with the operation of the independent judiciary in the city “must be sternly deplored and condemned.”

“The Bar stresses once again that there is no basis at all to call into question the
integrity and independence of Hong Kong judges…” the statement read.

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Kelly Ho has an interest in local politics, education and sports. She formerly worked at South China Morning Post Young Post, where she specialised in reporting on issues related to Hong Kong youth. She has a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Hong Kong, with a second major in Politics and Public Administration.