Hong Kong lawyers to stage silent protest in defence of rule of law

HONG KONG (REUTERS) - Hundreds of Hong Kong lawyers are expected to stage a silent march on Friday in protest against Beijing's policy towards the judiciary, in a sign of growing concern about the rule of law in the former British colony.

Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997 under the formula of "one country, two systems", with the promise of a high degree of autonomy. Unlike on the mainland, Hong Kong's judiciary enjoys a level of independence similar to that in the West.

But Beijing raised alarm when it released a white paper this month, spelling out its interpretation of the one country, two systems model, in which it said "loving the country" is a basic requirement for the city's administrators, including judicial personnel, enraging many in the city's legal circles.

"They're redrawing the boundary," said Mr Dennis Kwok, a lawyer and a member of Hong Kong's Legislative Council, who is organising the march. "They're lumping everyone together, because in their eyes, they're no different.

"That's how it works in the mainland. Judges are no different from government officials. But they have seriously misunderstood the legal system in Hong Kong," Mr Kwok said.

He expected 500 legal professionals to show up for the march, which will end at the Court of Final Appeal.

The white paper came ahead of an unofficial referendum on democratic reforms in Hong Kong, part of a civil campaign that has been branded illegal by the former British colony and by Communist Party authorities in Beijing. The referendum ends on Sunday.

"The rule of law and the independence of the judiciary are indispensable and sacrosanct foundations for the Hong Kong legal system," the Law Society, which represents nearly 7,500 solicitors, said, although its president said he had "no problem" with the way the white paper defined the judiciary, media reported last week.

The Bar Association, which represents more than 1,000 barristers, also raised concerns, saying judges and judicial officers should not be regarded as part of "Hong Kong's administrators".

Earlier this month, Hong Kong Secretary of Justice Rimsky Yuen defended the white paper, saying it did not seek to undermine judicial autonomy. While some in the legal community are enraged by what they see as Beijing's increasing interference in the city, the business sector has so far showed little reaction.

"The rule of law is being undermined, but is it being undermined in a way that is going to affect corporates? Not really," said Mr Arnout van Rijn, CIO and APAC Equities Fund Manager at Robeco, a Dutch-based asset management firm.

Hong Kong ranks 16th out of 99 countries and regions in the 2014 Rule of Law Index, released by the World Justice Project. The United Kingdom ranks 13th.