Hong Kong's foreign judge defends city's legal independence

HONG KONG (REUTERS) - A senior foreign Hong Kong judge said on Tuesday he detected no undermining of judicial independence in the global financial hub amid rising fears of interference from China.

In rare public comments from a judge on Hong Kong's Court of Final Appeal, David Neuberger said he saw "no present problem"with the rule of law in the former British colony.

"If I felt that the independence of the judiciary in Hong Kong was being undermined then I would either have to speak out or I would have to resign as a judge," said Neuberger, who also serves as president of Britain's Supreme Court.

"Certainly from my perspective, and what I can speak about with confidence, I can say at the moment I detect no undermining of judicial independence," he said. "What I can't say because I'm not competent to say is whether there is any threat and how great the threat is and where it is coming from."

Neuberger's comments come amid an intensifying debate over the city's legal independence - a core part of the freedoms it was guaranteed for 50 years after Britain handed Hong Kong back to Chinese rule in 1997 under a "once country, two systems"formula.

The integrity of its British-based legal system has been a lightning-rod for broader concerns at perceived recent interference from Beijing, particularly a white paper produced by China's State Council in June that stated that the city's administrators, including judges, must "love the country".

Lawyers have taken to the streets to protest against the paper and last week forced the president of the Law Society to resign for his open support for the document and China's ruling Communist Party.

Hong Kong's former top judge, Andrew Li, this month expressed "great concern" at the patriotic demand.

Neuberger, however, said "judicial independence is not inconsistent with judicial patriotism". "They way in which judges demonstrate their patriotism is an irrevocable and undiluted commitment to the rule of law," he said, stressing the need for fearless, honest and open justice.