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HK lawyers alarmed at plans for Carrie Lam to pick judges

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Senior Hong Kong lawyers expressed alarm on Sunday at plans for the city's leader to select judges for national security cases while an effort by pro-democracy labour unions and a student group to hold strikes against looming national security legislation imposed by Beijing failed to garner enough support.

Hong Kong

SENIOR Hong Kong lawyers expressed alarm on Sunday at plans for the city's leader to select judges for national security cases while an effort by pro-democracy labour unions and a student group to hold strikes against looming national security legislation imposed by Beijing failed to garner enough support.

The lawyers called the plan, which is part of the new security law imposed by China, the most serious challenge to the territory's vaunted judicial independence since the 1997 handover to Chinese rule.

The move was among details of a new national security law for Hong Kong released by the official Xinhua news agency on Saturday - legislation that is expected to be passed soon by the standing committee of China's parliament, the National People's Congress.

As well as heading a new local national security council supervised by Beijing officials, the city's chief executive, Carrie Lam, will also have the power to appoint judges to hear cases under the law.

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The Hong Kong Bar Association's chairman, Philip Dykes, described as "extraordinary" any move to have Mrs Lam allocate judges, saying it cut to the core of the independence of the judiciary that is protected by the Basic Law, the city's mini-constitution.

"This is the biggest shift since the handover," Mr Dykes told Reuters.

"You can't be slightly independent any more than you can be slightly pregnant. You're either independent or you're not." With Mrs Lam heading the council, "you're picking a judge for a contest in which you have an interest".

In response to Reuters' questions addressed to Chief Justice Geoffrey Ma on the new legislation, the judiciary said in an e-mail that it "would not comment".

Hong Kong and Chinese officials say the law must be imposed urgently on the former British colony after sometimes-violent protests over the past year exposed the need to tackle separatism, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces.

The law is stoking fears among foreign governments as well as Hong Kong's democracy activists, who were already concerned that Beijing is eroding extensive autonomy promised when Britain handed it back under a "one country, two systems" formula.

The city's common law-based legal system is widely seen as the bedrock of that formula, underpinning its status as a global financial hub.

Speaking privately, other senior lawyers expressed deep concern, saying it appeared to confirm their fears that Beijing wanted to curb the "separation of powers" that made Hong Kong judges an important check on the government. Some admit to being increasingly nervous about speaking out due to Beijing's growing squeeze.

A Reuters special report in April revealed that some of the city's most senior judges privately feared that the city's rule of law was under assault from Beijing.

While pro-Beijing figures have demanded special courts and called for foreign judges - a long-standing tradition in Hong Kong - to be barred from national security cases, the new plan had not surfaced locally.

"It is an act to import political elements into the judicial system, which is supposed to be impartial," said Angeline Chan, a solicitor and convenor of the Progressive Lawyers Group.

The allocation and rostering of judges is currently handled by senior judges based on legal experience.

"It raises a lot of questions ...God knows how they will be selected," said Mr Dykes, urging the full proposed law to be released as soon as possible.

Mrs Lam said in a statement late on Saturday that the central government had repeatedly emphasised the law "will not affect the capitalist system in Hong Kong and (its) legal system".

Meanwhile, after a year of often-violent unrest, anti-government demonstrations have lost momentum to stage more strikes due to higher risk of arrest, with recent rallies failing to receive police approval due to coronavirus restrictions on large crowds.

A strike was intended to open a new arena of resistance, but organisers said only 8,943 union members participated in a city-wide poll, falling short of the 60,000 threshold to go ahead, even as 95 per cent of the votes were in favour.

Separately, the Secondary School Students Action Platform said it would not initiate a class boycott, as they fell short of some of their targets for in-person votes. Voting took place on Saturday and the results were announced around midnight.

The unions represented almost two dozen industries, including aviation, transport, construction, technology and tourism. Most were formed in the past year as pro-democracy activists have spearheaded the biggest push to unionise the laissez-faire, ultra-capitalist finance hub - where collective bargaining rights are not recognised - since Britain handed the city back to China in 1997. REUTERS

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