Australian judge James Spigelman has resigned from Hong Kong’s highest court, reportedly citing concerns over the national security law imposed on the region by Beijing.
His resignation comes amid a deteriorating political and judicial environment in Hong Kong, where the imposition of a national security law by the central government in Beijing has sparked concern and confusion about Hong Kong’s rule of law as a semi-autonomous state.
ABC reporter Stephen Dziedzic quoted Spigelman as saying he stepped down for reasons “related to the content of the national security laws”.
In late June, Beijing implemented national security laws that criminalised a broad range of acts as sedition, secession, foreign collusion and terrorism. The implementation sidestepped Hong Kong’s legislature but had the blessing of its government, led by chief executive Carrie Lam.
It has been widely criticised as ill-defined and in breach of international laws, designed to crush dissent in a city that was wracked by pro-democracy protests for much of 2019. At least 25 people have been arrested, for alleged crimes as benign as possessing pro-independence flags, up to allegations of foreign collusion.
In recent weeks, the city’s legal sector has been mired in debate over comments by senior politicians, including Lam, that Hong Kong has no enshrined separation of powers.
There have also been concerns over how much jurisdiction the new law grants Beijing over alleged crimes committed in Hong Kong, which operates its own parliament and justice system under the “one country two systems” principle with mainland China, as well as the future of foreign judges on Hong Kong’s benches.
The Hong Kong government announced on Friday afternoon it had “revoked” Spigelman’s appointment, effective 2 September, but did not detail why, which prompted widespread speculation.
Under Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law, a judge can only be revoked by the chief executive on the recommendation of a tribunal comprising at least three local judges, for an “inability to discharge his or her duties, or for misbehaviour”. It must also be endorsed by the Legislative Council.
Since 1997, an Australian judge has always been among those presiding over the court, which is the final avenue of appeal in Hong Kong. Spigelman’s current term on Hong Kong’s court of final appeal as a “non-permanent judge from other common law jurisdictions” was due to expire in 2022. He was first appointed in 2013.
Spigelman is the former chief justice of the New South Wales supreme court and lieutenant governor of NSW from 1998 to 2011. He was also chairman of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation from 2012 to 2017.
The Guardian has attempted to contact Spigelman.