Times COMMENT | ALISTAIR CARMICHAEL MP
Alistair Carmichael MP
Thursday October 14 2021, 12.01am, The Times
Thousands of protesters have been leaving Hong Kong in recent months to escape the brutal national security law. Now that Hong Kong judges are joining the exodus, another milestone has been reached — a response is needed and British judges must stop propping up Hong Kong’s kangaroo courts.
Sham Siu-man, a district judge in Hong Kong, has been forced to take early retirement and leave the city, marking the final nail in the coffin for the territory’s independent courts.
In 2019 hundreds of thousands of Hongkongers took to the streets to protest against the proposed security law. The police and authorities’ response was heavy-handed, the start of a chain of events that would destroy Hong Kong’s reputation as a beacon of freedom and openness.
In two separate rulings, Sham acquitted 12 defendants who faced charges related to the protests. Sham was then vilified by the city’s pro-Beijing media, and the Department of Justice said they would appeal against the ruling. They claimed that the judge had failed to “properly, adequately and fully consider and analyse the whole of the evidence”.
Well, they would say that.
Hong Kong’s judiciary has fallen into disarray following those 2019 protests. Since Beijing unilaterally imposed the security law in June 2020, the legal system in Hong Kong has become nothing more than a stick with which the authorities can whack those who might oppose them.
The new law is deliberately vague, criminalising any act that could be construed as terrorism, secession, subversion or collusion with foreign forces. It allows a maximum penalty of life imprisonment and claims international jurisdiction, supposedly enforceable against any individual anywhere in the world. It has been used to shut down anti-government media outlets, pressurise student and activist groups to disband and to threaten any individual who voices dissent.
The legislation is a gross violation of human rights and undermines Hong Kong’s basic law. Despite promises to the contrary, there is evidence that the law is being applied retroactively, that defendants are being held without bail and that special prosecutors and judges are being assigned to the cases.
The repressive political climate lends false credibility to the thousands of charges accrued during the 2019 protests, for which a new “megacourt” is being convened to clear the backlog. No wonder Sham felt the need to leave his life in Hong Kong behind.
We have a part to play in this saga. British judges have unfortunately lent a veneer of credibility to Hong Kong’s flagging judicial system, and several have sat in the city’s Court of Final Appeal since the territory was returned to China in 1997.
The president of the UK’s Supreme Court defended this choice as recently as August. With Hong Kong judges fleeing and legislation being used to silence dissent, however, the time has come for British judges to step back from this parody of justice.
The mass exodus of Hong Kong citizens and foreign nationals from the city since the national security law was introduced shows that those who had made Hong Kong their home refuse to be governed by fear.
British judges’ continued presence in Hong Kong lends a false veneer of respectability to a justice system that is no longer just. The president of the Supreme Court and the new foreign secretary must take a stand and remove British judges from Hong Kong once and for all.