Two British judges quit Hong Kong's top court

FILE PHOTO: A statue of Lady Justice at the Court of Final Appeal is pictured, in Hong Kong

By James Pomfret, Jessie Pang and Greg Torode

HONG KONG (Reuters) -Two British judges have resigned from Hong Kong's top court, about a week after a landmark verdict that convicted 14 prominent democratic activists of subversion, amid a national security crackdown on dissent in the financial hub.

In a statement on Thursday, the Hong Kong judiciary said two prominent British judges, Lawrence Collins and Jonathan Sumption, had tendered their resignations from the city's Court of Final Appeal (CFA), where they served as non-permanent judges.

"I have resigned from the Court of Final Appeal because of the political situation in Hong Kong, but I continue to have the fullest confidence in the court and the total independence of its members," Collins was quoted as telling the Financial Times.

Sumption confirmed to Reuters he had resigned and said he would make a statement next week. Collins offered no immediate response to a Reuters request for comment.

The presence of top foreign jurists on Hong Kong's top court has long been seen as a symbol of the rule of law that underpins the city's international image.

Hong Kong's Chief Justice Andrew Cheung said he noted the resignations with regret.

"All judges and judicial officers will continue to abide by the judicial oath and administer justice in full accordance with the law, without fear or favour, self-interest or deceit," Cheung said in a statement on Friday.

Cheung said the city's top court now has four local non-permanent judges and eight non-permanent judges from other common law jurisdictions, including two overseas judges appointed last year and this May.

One of the three British judges remaining, David Neuberger, said he could not comment on the resignations but he intended to stay on as a non-permanent judge in Hong Kong.

In an email response to Reuters' questions, Neuberger said he wanted to "support my colleagues in the CFA (for whom I have great respect) and more generally to support the rule of law in Hong Kong, as best I can."

The other judges remaining are from Canada and Australia.

On Friday, the Hong Kong Bar Association said it "strongly believes that their resignations will not affect the ability of our apex court in discharging its judicial functions".

It also expressed "every confidence" in the independence of Hong Kong's judicial system.

The resignations swell the number of British jurists who have severed ties to Hong Kong's highest court amid a years-long crackdown on dissent under a China-imposed national security law in 2020 following mass pro-democracy protests.

In a separate statement of regret at the resignations, Hong Kong's chief executive, John Lee, said the new law had helped the city transition from "chaos to order".

Robert Reed, who resigned from the CFA in 2022, said at the time his continuation would have appeared to endorse an administration "which has departed from values of political freedom and freedom of expression."

Britain, which handed Hong Kong back to China in 1997, has said the security law that punishes offences such as subversion with terms of up to life in jail has been used to curb dissent and freedom.

Many of the city's democratic campaigners have been arrested, detained or forced into exile, civil society groups have been shuttered and liberal media outlets forced to close.

Last week, 14 pro-democracy activists were found guilty and two acquitted in the landmark subversion trial that critics say further undermined the city's rule of law and its reputation as a global financial hub.

The verdicts in Hong Kong's biggest trial against the democratic opposition came more than three years after police arrested 47 democratic activists in dawn raids on homes across the city.

Chinese and Hong Kong authorities say the national security law is necessary and has brought stability.

The presence of foreign judges in Hong Kong is enshrined in the Basic Law, the mini-constitution that guarantees the territory's freedoms and extensive autonomy under Chinese rule.

These include the continuation of Hong Kong’s common law traditions forged during the colonial era.

(Reporting by James Pomfret and Jessie Pang; additional reporting by Greg Torode; Editing by Lincoln Feast and Clarence Fernandez)