HONG KONG (Reuters) - Two top Hong Kong judges on Friday defended the rule of law in an apparent rebuke of China's top official in the city who recently stoked controversy by saying Hong Kong's China-backed leader was above the law.
The mainland official, Zhang Xiaoming, said this month Hong Kong's chief executive had a "special legal position which is above the executive, legislative and judicial institutions." The controversy highlighted a passionate debate in Hong Kong about the extent of mainland control.
The former British colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997 under a "one country, two systems" framework that gave it separate laws and an independent judiciary but reserved ultimate authority for Beijing.
Hong Kong Chief Justice Geoffrey Ma, speaking at the opening of a new court attended by Zhang, Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying and prominent foreign judges, said the rule of law was crucial to the financial hub's success.
"Decisions of the courts may sometimes not be to everybody's liking - whether they be private individuals, political or other groups, or even the government - but it is not the role of the courts to make popular decisions," Ma said.
Former Hong Kong Chief Justice Andrew Li told reporters that"no one, no matter how high their status, can be above the law".
Zhang did not comment.
Hong Kong has enjoyed a reputation as a bastion of legal independence compared with the mainland, though there has been concern in recent years about a politicisation of the judiciary.
The debate about Beijing's control was fuelled last year by protests aimed at securing open nominations for the election of its next chief executive in 2017.
The anniversary of the beginning of those protests, which posed a political challenge to China's Communist Party leaders, is on Monday.
Two dozen activists burned a photograph of Zhang outside the domed former legislative council building that will now serve as Hong Kong's highest court.
The protesters, outnumbered by police, called for an independent judiciary and the dropping of charges against activists arrested over last year's protests.
Former top judge Li has rejected suggestions by mainland legal experts that Hong Kong phase out foreign judges in its highest courts. "In these uncertain times, it is all the more important that the rule of law with an independent judiciary should remain an unshakeable foundation of our society," Li wrote in a recent editorial.
Hong Kong's Department of Justice said on Friday Hong Kong's judiciary should "as far as possible" handle Hong Kong affairs.