By Greg Torode and James Pomfret
HONG KONG (Reuters) - A Chinese decision that part of a Hong Kong train station would be subject to Chinese law and enforcement was a blow against the city's independent legal system, the city's bar association chief said on Monday.
China's parliament voted to allow Chinese immigration checks and the enforcement of mainland Chinese laws in part of the station, so that after boarding the train in Hong Kong passengers would not need to get off the train for immigration checks at the Hong Kong-mainland border.
Critics say the "co-location" arrangement, also known as "one land, two checks" in Chinese, sets a dangerous precedent because it violates the city’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law, in which article 18 explicitly states national laws, with a few exceptions, do not apply in Hong Kong.
The remarks by Paul Lam, the head of the bar association, marked its strongest warning yet about the impact of the move in December by China's parliament, the National People's Congress.
Hong Kong's legal system is a cornerstone of the extensive autonomy it was promised after Britain handed its former colony back to China in 1997, under a "one country, two systems" formula that guarantees freedoms not found on the mainland.
Beijing had interpreted Hong Kong's Basic Law, its mini-constitution, in a manner that was "unconvincing and difficult to comprehend," Lam told the annual Hong Kong’s top judges, lawyers and legal officials.
"On this occasion, it is regrettable and unfortunate that an earthquake has occurred," he said. "The shockwave caused by the earthquake is distinctly felt ... (but) I firmly believe that the rule of law in Hong Kong is strong enough to survive the aftermath."
The gathering, which included diplomats and Chinese officials, showed the two systems in sharp relief, with judges and counsel in Britain's traditional ceremonial horsehair wigs, gowns and stockings.
"The rule of law is the cornerstone of our legal system, which in turn is the cornerstone of our society," Teresa Cheng, the city's new secretary for justice, said in a separate speech. She stressed that politics can have "no role" in any legal decisions.
Cheng added that while she couldn't agree Hong Kong's rule of law had been compromised, she said it was possible that it was being "tested".
Hong Kong's judicial independence has been ranked first in Asia for the past three years, according to the Global Competitive Reporters of the World Economic Forum, Cheng said.
And in rare public comments, Hong Kong's top judge, Chief Justice Geoffrey Ma, also acknowledged pressures and challenges on the system, but he repeatedly insisted its independence and integrity remained intact. Neither Cheng nor Ma directly commented on Beijing's decision.
"It is in everyone's interest that the rule of law remains strong, respected and visible," he said.
Ultimately, the biggest pressure faced by Hong Kong judges remained "getting it (the law) right", he told reporters.
(Editing by Larry King)