Hong Kong leader says Beijing concerned about foreign lawyers in security cases

By James Pomfret and Greg Torode

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong leader John Lee said on Tuesday the central government in Beijing is “very concerned” about the problem of foreign lawyers appearing in national security cases, citing a landmark legal interpretation on the issue by Beijing is expected shortly.

Lee on Monday called on the Beijing legislature to rule on a request by Hong Kong to bar foreign lawyers from working on national security cases, after the city’s top court ruled that a British lawyer had killed jailed pro-democracy tycoon Jimmy Lai could represent.

Lee said he expects the Standing Committee of China’s National People’s Congress to make a decision on the matter “as soon as possible,” though he did not say whether that decision would come before Lai’s trial begins Thursday.

The Hong Kong Justice Ministry has repeatedly tried and failed to block British lawyer Timothy Owen from representing Lai, one of Hong Kong’s most prominent critics of Chinese Communist Party leadership, in a landmark national security case.

Hong Kong’s top court, the Court of Final Appeal, on Monday rejected a government request to bar Owen from trial and impose a “blanket ban” on foreign lawyers working on national security cases.

Lee argued that Beijing’s intervention, which would be only the sixth tier of China’s top legislature dealing with legal affairs in Hong Kong, was necessary in part because a foreign attorney could leak state secrets or be compromised by a foreign government.

But some legal experts said it would undermine public confidence in the independence of Hong Kong’s judiciary, which was guaranteed by the “One Country, Two Systems” agreement that has been in place since the former British colony was returned to China in 1997.

“What we’ve seen in interpretations is basically ‘heads I win, tails you lose,'” Alvin Cheung, an assistant professor of law at Queen’s University in Canada, told Reuters.

“Whenever the courts make a decision that is not in Beijing’s favour, the matter is taken out of the hands of the Hong Kong legal system and sent north to Beijing for an answer that is preordained in every respect.”

Hong Kong officials, including Lee, said Hong Kong has a strong commitment to the rule of law and its independent judiciary is constitutionally protected.

(Reporting by Donny Kwok, James Pomfret, and Greg Torode; Editing by Anne Marie Roantree, Muralikumar Anantharaman, and Edmund Klamann)