HONG KONG (Reuters) - Hong Kong's chief justice said on Thursday that judges appointed to cases under Hong Kong's new national security law would be appointed on the basis of judicial and professional qualities, rather than politics.
In a rare statement, Geoffrey Ma said assigning judges to cases would be the sole responsibility of the judiciary, apparently seeking to allay fears that judges for national security cases would be picked by Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam.
Beijing directly imposed the contentious security legislation on Hong Kong on Tuesday, bypassing the city's legislature and stoking concern over the erosion of freedoms in the former British colony.
Hong Kong's independent judiciary, one of many freedoms guaranteed when it returned to Chinese rule in 1997, has long been considered key to its success as a global financial hub.
Ma said judges for national security cases would be selected on the basis of judicial and professional qualities, not political considerations.
"Judges of foreign nationality are not excluded. They are expressly permitted to be appointed as judges in Hong Kong," Ma said.
Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, known as the Basic Law, enshrines the independence of the judiciary and states that judges may come from other common law jurisdictions. Its Court of Final Appeal has 23 judges, of whom 15 are foreign, from places like Britain, Canada and Australia.
According to the new security law, Beijing-backed leader Lam will select judges for cases related to the legislation, which has triggered alarm among some lawyers.
Lam has said that she would appoint a panel of judges for all courts based on recommendations from a judicial body, rather than select judges for individual cases.
The law has stoked fears among Hong Kong democracy activists and some foreign governments that Beijing is further eroding the autonomy promised when Britain handed it back to China under a "one country, two systems" formula.
The city's common law-based legal system is widely seen as the bedrock of that formula.
(Reporting by Greg Torode, Noah Sin and Anne Marie Roantree; Editing by John Stonestreet, Robert Birsel)