US Lawmakers Urge to Sanction 29 Hong Kong Judges to Uphold Democratic Freedoms

A U.S. congressional report has urged the United States to impose sanctions on 29 Hong Kong judges appointed to preside over national security cases, citing their role in the arbitrary imprisonment of over 1,000 political prisoners.

“The United States government should consider imposing sanctions on judges to counter the erosion of democratic freedoms in Hong Kong,” the U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC) stated in their report released on May 11.

The report said the National Security Law (NSL) imposed on Hong Kong by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in 2020 had created “a parallel legal system that weakens judicial independence and strips criminal defendants of basic due process protections.”

The 29 judges are “an integral part” of the parallel legal regime in Hong Kong, having been appointed by the Hong Kong chief executive to preside over national security cases for a one-year term, it stated.

“As participants in this system, judges appointed to handle national security cases contribute to these systemic violations,” the report reads.

The NSL also permits the removal of judges who are deemed to pose a threat to national security. But the CECC argued that the short appointment term and the lack of removal criteria run counter to the principles of judicial independence.

The lawmakers described the selection process of judges as “opaque” and said that the Chief Executive Office had refused to disclose the full list of names. This lack of transparency diminishes the public’s trust in the judiciary and undermines judicial independence, they added.

Hong Kong authorities have condemned the CECC report for making “slandering remarks and despicable threats” against its judges, saying it exposed the “double standard” of the U.S. lawmakers concerned.

“The threat is a shameless, sinister, and malicious attempt to put spiteful pressure on judges in the HKSAR, to interfere with the judicial process in the HKSAR, and to undermine the system for the administration of justice in the HKSAR,” it said in a statement.

‘Damaged’ Legal System

The NSL, which punishes what the CCP broadly defines as secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign forces with up to life in jail, has been condemned by democratic governments around the world and human rights groups as a tool to crush dissent in the semi-autonomous city.

The law was imposed on Hong Kong after the 2019 protests for democracy and political reforms. The CECC stated there are over 1,000 estimated political prisoners in Hong Kong, a development that would have been “unthinkable” less than a decade ago.

The report cited the case of jailed pro-democracy media tycoon Jimmy Lai, the former Next Media founder and Apple Daily CEO, who has been sentenced to five years and nine months in jail for breaching lease terms.

His son, Sebastien Lai, said the 75-year-old activist would face a national security trial in September, which he considers to be “a foregone conclusion.” He said he expects to see his father receive a lengthy sentence, “possibly a life sentence” under the NSL.

Epoch Times Photo
Epoch Times Photo
Sebastien Lai testifies at the U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC) hearing on political prisoners and the rule of law in Hong Kong in Washington on May 11, 2023. (Screenshot via CECC live broadcasting)
Jimmy Lai
Jimmy Lai
Media mogul Jimmy Lai, founder of Apple Daily, leaves the Court of Final Appeal by prison van in Hong Kong on Feb. 9, 2021. (Tyrone Siu/Reuters)

“These are ludicrous charges which symbolize just how damaged the legal system in Hong Kong now is. There is no freedom of the press. There is no rule of law,” Lai said in his testimony [pdf] to the CECC.

“My father has never advocated for violence. He is a man of peace. His only so-called ‘crime’ is to disagree and condemn the actions of the CCP and the Hong Kong authorities that seek to silence critical voices. For that, he faces the rest of his life in prison,” he added.

‘Death by a Thousand Cuts’

Kevin Yam, a Hong Kong lawyer and senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Center for Asian Law, said that Hong Kong judges know that the safest route to survival and promotion is “to obey to the hilt.”

“It means that for all the long political show trials with their ostentatious displays of common law court procedure, the will, whether consciously or subconsciously, almost inevitably side with the prosecution,” Yam said in a testimony [pdf] to the CECC on May 11.

“Overall, what we have witnessed in Hong Kong is a death by a thousand cuts from Beijing to Hong Kong’s rule of law and judicial independence,” Yam added.

Brian Kern, a Hong Kong activist and writer, said the only countries incarcerating political prisoners at rates faster than Hong Kong’s over the past three years are Burma (also known as Myanmar) and Belarus.

“Hardly beacons of the rule of law,” Kern said in his testimony [pdf]. “Political imprisonment isn’t an entirely new phenomenon in Hong Kong, but mass political imprisonment is.”

Kern said the number of political prisoners in Hong Kong had escalated dramatically, rising from 26 at the start of the protests in June 2019 to 1,014 in May 2022. The number has increased to about 1,457 today, he added.

Kern urged the United States to continue to “take a tough stand on Hong Kong,” and make the CCP knows that the crackdown on Hong Kong will continue to impede improved U.S.-China relations.

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