June 15th, 2024

Former top judge McLachlin exits Hong Kong court with ‘confidence,’ mum on repression


By Dylan Robertson, The Canadian Press on June 10, 2024.

Outgoing Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada Beverley McLachlin listens to a question during a news conference in Ottawa on December 15, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

OTTAWA – Canada’s former top judge is ending her term on a high-level Hong Kong court, saying she has faith in that institution while keeping mum on democratic backsliding in the city-state.

Beverley McLachlin served as Canada’s chief justice from 2000 to 2017 and joined the Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal a year later.

In recent years, Hong Kong civil society has reported a steady crackdown on democracy in the former British colony, which had been returned to Chinese rule with an understanding that its laws would allow for more freedom than in mainland China.

Two British judges on the court resigned last week, with one saying he stepped down because the city is sliding into totalitarian rule and its rule of law is in “grave danger.”

But in a statement, McLachlin raised no concerns about Hong Kong’s judicial independence.

“I continue to have confidence in the members of the court, their independence and their determination to uphold the rule of law,” she said.

McLachlin said she’ll end her term as scheduled in late July, noting she is now 80 years old.

One of her colleagues, Jonathan Sumption, wrote Monday that judges operate in an “impossible political environment created by China.”

In an article published by the Financial Times, Sumption described a growing “paranoia of the authorities” and judges being intimidated by a “darkening political mood” in the Asian financial hub.

“Hong Kong, once a vibrant and politically diverse community, is slowly becoming a totalitarian state. The rule of law is profoundly compromised in any area about which the government feels strongly,” he wrote. “The least sign of dissent is treated as a call for revolution.”

Another judge, Lawrence Collins, resigned last week, telling The Associated Press that his departure was “because of the political situation” in Hong Kong. But he said he continued “to have the fullest confidence in the court and the total independence of its members.”

Hong Kong is a common law jurisdiction, unlike mainland China. After the city returned to Chinese rule in 1997, non-permanent overseas judges have consistently served on its top court. Fifteen such judges served in 2019. About seven remain.

In 2022, another British judge, Robert Reed, stepped down saying the administration “has departed from values of political freedom and freedom of expression.”

Rights groups and critics say Chinese authorities’ enactment of a 2020 national-security law has eroded Hong Kong’s judicial independence and all but wiped out public dissent. Many pro-democracy activists have been arrested under the law.

In May, a Hong Kong court found 14 pro-democracy activists guilty of conspiring to commit subversion in the city’s biggest national-security case to date.

They were among 47 activists accused of attempting to paralyze Hong Kong’s government and topple the city’s leader by securing the legislative majority necessary to indiscriminately veto budgets.

Ottawa has condemned Hong Kong officials for issuing bounties for the arrest of activists living abroad, including Edmonton-born Dennis Kwok.

The Beijing and Hong Kong governments have insisted that the law has helped bring back stability following huge anti-government protests in 2019.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 10, 2024.

– With files from The Associated Press.

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