A record number of lawyers took to the streets yesterday to protest against Beijing's white paper that they say jeopardises judicial independence, a value that sets Hong Kong apart from the rest of the country.
One of the city's highest-level judges offered support for the 1,800 participants, who wore black and marched in silence in the profession's third public display of support for the judiciary since the handover in 1997.
Watch: Hong Kong lawyers march to defend judiciary in wake of Beijing’s white paper
Court of Final Appeal non-permanent judge Kemal Bokhary did not march but said he supported the cause.
"I know what their values are and I support that," said Bokhary, widely thought of as a liberal judge.
The march was held in protest against the white paper issued by the State Council on June 10 that called judges "administrators" and said they should be patriotic.
Asked if he agreed that judges were administrators, Bokhary said: "Well, we are judges."
Martin Lee Chu-ming, Hong Kong's most experienced senior counsel on the barristers' list and founding chairman of the Democratic Party, said: "Lawyers are giving support to an independent judiciary which cannot speak for itself. Without it, human rights cannot be defended."
Professor Johannes Chan Man-mun, outgoing law dean at the University of Hong Kong who also joined similar but smaller marches in 1999 and 2005, said: "Fifteen years on, the legal profession still needs to take to the streets. This is a problem."
The previous marches followed Basic Law interpretations by Beijing.
Dennis Kwok, the lawyer-lawmaker who organised the march, said the record turnout sends a clear message to the central government and global community.
Nine chairmen of the Bar Association, mainland civil-rights lawyer Teng Biao , and a handful of government lawyers joined the march.
Teng said he saw the white paper as in line with Beijing's increasingly suppressive attitude towards opposition at home.
"What's happening here is connected to suppression of the mainland's civic society, underground churches and human rights lawyers," said Teng, who teaches at Chinese University.
Solicitors also braved the heat and joined the march, from the High Court to the Court of Final Appeal, in apparent defiance of Law Society president Ambrose Lam San-keung, who earlier spoke in favour of the paper.
"I was shocked when I saw the white paper - I asked why the line was different from our understanding of the rule of law in the past," said Priscilla Choy, one of 200-plus lawyers planning a no-confidence vote against Lam.
A spokesman for the Department of Justice dismissed the marchers' fears.
"As a matter of fact, the white paper made repeated references to [Hong Kong's] independent judicial power," he said.
Quotes from leading lawyers participating in the silent march
"If judges have to be standing with the government and form part of the government [as the white paper suggests], this would be totally contrary to the rule of law" - Audrey Eu Yuet-mee, a former president of the Bar Association
"We want to send a very clear message to the Central People’s Government: Don’t interfere, don’t damage the rule of law; it is too important for Hong Kong"
- Dennis Kwok Wing-hang, legislator for the legal sector
"Lawyers are marching because we see the white paper as an attempt to rewrite the Basic Law by giving our judges political missions - which are not acceptable at all" - Alan Leong Kah-kit, senior counsel and Civic Party chairman
"I came out because no person can keep himself untroubled during chaotic times" - Lawrence Lok, senior counsel