Democrats' concern at judges' role in approving operations brushed aside The covert surveillance bill's provisions for a panel of judges to authorise spying operations seriously undermine the judiciary's independence, pro-democracy legislators warned last night. 'Maintaining judicial independence is the crux of the rule of law,' legislator Margaret Ng Ngoi-yee said. Having a panel of judges appointed by the chief executive - on the recommendation of the chief justice - sitting outside the scope of the courts to make decisions on covert operations would end the separation of the executive and the judiciary, she said. It was the 'most damning provision' of the bill, the Civic Party lawmaker added. Her amendments seeking to have the chief justice alone appoint the panel members were defeated, as were all her other amendments yesterday. The government came under fire from Ms Ng, Democrat Martin Lee Chu-ming, fellow Civic Party member Ronny Tong Ka-wah and independent Leung Kwok-hung for claiming that the judiciary supported the bill. Mr Tong said he had spoken to six judges who had told him they would not sit on a panel of judges appointed to grant authorisations on surveillance. Mr Tong said Secretary for Security Ambrose Lee Siu-kwong's claim that judges supported the bill was a bullying tactic. The minister insisted the government had 'no intention of interfering with the independence of the judiciary'. By close of business early this morning, legislators had gone through the 13th of 59 batches of amendments to the 65-clause covert surveillance bill. The Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong accused the democrats of dragging their heels on the debate and thereby playing into the hands of criminals. During debates on the definition of 'serious crime', DAB lawmakers Lau Kong-wah and Chan Kam-lam accused the Democrats and their allies of serving the interests of criminals by tying the hands of law enforcement authorities. Council president Rita Fan Hsu Lai-tai said she could not rule out working through Friday night to ensure the law gets passed by Tuesday's court-imposed deadline. But democrats protested. 'The legal vacuum has been there for 10 years - why do we have to concern ourselves with [the] August 8 [deadline],' Civic Party leader Audrey Eu Yuet-mee asked. Mrs Fan said: 'My duty is to decide when we can adjourn and resume. You can always move a motion of no confidence if you want.' Government allies said democrats might be forced into silence if the debate went around the clock. Executive councillor Bernard Charnwut Chan said: 'Who will really talk during the night?'