HONG KONG — Hong Kong's new top judge warned Monday that the semi-autonomous Chinese territory's courts need to show they are impartial amid a flurry of politically charged cases or risk losing public trust.
Hong Kong has been in a state of political crisis after months of anti-government protests in 2019 led to Beijing imposing a tough national security law on the city to quash dissent. Pro-democracy supporters say the security legislation suppresses the freedoms Hong Kong was promised when it was handed over from British control in 1997.
Last week, 55 pro-democracy activists were arrested in a sweeping police operation, and prominent pro-democracy activists such as Joshua Wong, Agnes Chow and outspoken media tycoon Jimmy Lai are currently in jail for their activism.
Hong Kong Chief Justice Andrew Cheung, who was sworn in on Monday, said that judges in the city's courts must be careful to show impartiality in what they say in court and what they write in their judgments, especially in cases of a political nature.
"Any lapses in this regard, given the potentially polarizing nature of these cases, could lead to suspicion of partiality, which is not conducive to maintaining public confidence in our judicial system," Cheung said in his first speech delivered as chief justice.
He said it is equally crucial to the public and business community that there is confidence in the judicial system. Cheung also said it is important to the international reputation of Hong Kong that the city is governed by the rule of law under the "one country, two systems" framework that allows Hong Kong freedoms not found in mainland China.
Cheung also condemned threats of violence and doxxing attacks on judges, describing them as futile and reprehensible.
"Comments and criticisms, sometimes extreme and harsh ones, are unavoidable. Whilst the freedom of speech of everyone in society must be fully respected, there must not be any attempt to exert improper pressure on the judges in the discharge of their judicial functions," he said.
In a later news conference, Cheung reiterated that personal attacks as well as extreme and unfounded allegations against judges are unacceptable and threaten the independence of the judiciary.
He advised judges to focus on the evidence and facts and disregard everything else, including political pressure.
He also said that while there is a system in place to ensure the accountability of judges in Hong Kong, "there is room for further enhancement of the transparency and accountability" of the complaint-handling mechanism.