Hong Kong’s top judge, Geoffrey Ma Tao-li, has dismissed suggestions he has experienced interference from Beijing over the city’s judicial independence, including the appointment of judges.
In a statement on Wednesday, Ma said he had not encountered “any form of interference” from the mainland during his term as chief justice, a post he took up 10 years ago.
Ma’s statement came in response to a Reuters news report on Tuesday that cited “people close to” Ma as saying he had been forced to contend with Communist Party officials who believed the rule of law could be used as a tool to preserve one-party rule.
The report also cited “friends and former colleagues” of Ma who said he was showing signs of strain from the job, including having to continually defend the integrity of the courts. It also said unnamed judges had expressed concern that Beijing could intervene in the selection of judges in Hong Kong, where there is currently an opening on the top court.
Ma discounted those suggestions.
“Since taking office in 2010, the Chief Justice has not at any stage encountered or experienced any form of interference by the mainland authorities with judicial independence in Hong Kong, including the appointment of judges,” he said in the statement.
“Judicial independence is guaranteed under the Basic Law and is a main component of the rule of law in Hong Kong.”
As chief justice, Ma is the city’s top judge and head of its judiciary.
With the city beset by months of anti-government protests triggered by the now-shelved extradition bill, the judiciary has frequently found itself under fire from both sides of the political divide for its rulings in cases related to the unrest, with judges often the targets of criticism.
Some pro-government supporters have accused the judiciary of dragging its feet in meting out punishment to protesters, while anti-government radicals have painted graffiti on the outer wall of the High Court, insulting a judge who sent three activists to prison over 2016’s Mong Kok riots.
Controversy has also accompanied Beijing’s recent stepping up of rhetoric regarding local courts. In November, Vice-Premier Han Zheng suggested “restoring order” was the first duty of local courts, while later the same month, central government officials said only Beijing had the right to decide on issues of constitutionality after the High Court ruled a controversial mask ban contravened Basic Law.
Ma will retire from office next January, when he reaches the statutory retirement age of 65. He has said previously he would like to spend more time with his family.
Ma succeeded Andrew Li Kwok-nang as the second chief justice of Hong Kong.
Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor last month announced the appointment of Andrew Cheung Kui-nung, now a Court of Final Appeal judge, as Ma’s successor.
The appointment still requires the endorsement of the Legislative Council, and there have been concerns it could be delayed by political wrangling.
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