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A British judge who resigned from Hong Kong’s top court says the rule of law is in ‘grave danger’

LONDON — A British judge who resigned from Hong Kong’s top court last week said he stepped down because the rule of law in the city is in “grave danger” and judges operate in an “impossible political environment created by China.”

Jonathan Sumption, who had served as a non-permanent overseas judge on Hong Kong’s Court of Final Appeal, described a growing “paranoia of the authorities” and judges being intimidated by a “darkening political mood” in the Asian financial hub in an article published by the Financial Times on Monday.

“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.”

He wrote that he remained on the court in the hope that the presence of overseas judges would help sustain the rule of law, but “I fear that this is no longer realistic.”

Sumption was the latest of several overseas judges who have resigned from Hong Kong’s highest court in recent years.

Hong Kong, a former British colony, 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. Eight remain.

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

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

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.

Last week, 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.

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

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