HONG KONG (AFP) - More than a thousand lawyers all dressed in black took to the streets of Hong Kong in a silent march on Friday against "interference" by Beijing in the city's judiciary.
China issued its first ever policy document stipulating how Hong Kong should be governed earlier this month, in what was widely interpreted as a warning to the city not to overstep the boundaries of its autonomy.
It included an assertion that judges should safeguard national security and sovereignty, a move which has angered many in the the city's legal community.
The lawyers dressed in black suits and ties walked down the streets in silence from the High Court to the Court of Final Appeal where they gathered to observe three minutes of silence.
Organisers said 1,800 people attended the march, with law students also taking part.
"We want to send a very clear message to the central people's government, do not interfere, do not damage our rule of law, it is too precious for Hong Kong," said lawmaker and lawyer Dennis Kwok, who also organised the march.
"When it comes to the rule of law, we will not budge an inch, we will not accept anything that compromises the rule of law including the white paper," Mr Kwok said.
"What they are proposing is a sort of democracy where judges have to toe the line and where there is no impartiality in the courts, where they do what they're told," human rights lawyer Michael Vidler said at the protest.
But the silence was broken at the beginning of the march when more than a dozen pro-Beijing protesters played the Chinese national anthem and shouted "Support the white paper" and "We are Chinese people" on loudspeaker.
After the publication of the white paper, the Hong Kong Bar Association said in a statement that judges should safeguard judicial independence as they are not the government's "administrators".
"We are concerned about the rule of law, the international image of Hong Kong and the independence of the judiciary which is a very important cornerstone of an international financial centre," pro-democracy lawmaker and solicitor James To said.
"They just want their sovereignty to extend to the judiciary which on the mainland is part of the governmental system, they may have misunderstood Hong Kong values," said Mr To, who also attended the protest.
"There is no intention to interfere with the rule of law and judicial independence of Hong Kong," the Hong Kong government said in a statement in response to the march.
Fears over China's influence have intensified since the white paper, which galvanised more than 750,000 residents to vote in an unofficial democracy poll that has angered Beijing.
The 10-day referendum, which ends on Sunday, puts forward proposals that would give the public a say over the choice of candidates for the city's leader, who is currently appointed by a 1,200-strong pro-Beijing committee.
Residents will be able to vote for the chief executive in 2017, but China has rejected the idea of giving them a say in who can stand for the post. Many pro-democrats fear Beijing will hand-pick sympathetic candidates.