Prison staff were wrong to cut the hair of a former Hong Kong legislator known for his long locks, the territory’s top court said yesterday, in the second significant ruling against authorities this month.
The decision came as powerful establishment voices called for an overhaul of the judiciary — something opponents fear could muzzle the Hong Kong legal system’s vaunted independence as Beijing cracks down on its critics.
The ruling by the Hong Kong Final Court of Appeal is the culmination of a long legal battle by former Hong Kong legislator Leung Kwok-hung (梁國雄), 64, who served a brief jail sentence in 2014 linked to pro-democracy protests.
Better known by the nickname “Long Hair,” he is one of the territory’s best known democracy advocates, beginning his career campaigning against British colonial rule and later becoming a fierce critic of Beijing.
A panel of top judges — including Hong Kong Chief Justice Geoffrey Ma (馬道立) — unanimously ruled that Leung’s rights had been breached under sexual discrimination laws when his hair was cut in jail.
Hong Kong prison authorities insist that all male inmates keep their hair cut short, but female convicts are allowed to grow theirs long if they wish.
“The fact that male prisoners are denied a choice as to their hair length, suggests that they are treated less favourably than female prisoners,” the judges wrote, adding authorities had failed to explain why short hair was required for custodial discipline.
The decision came at a sensitive time for Hong Kong’s legal system. Unlike the mainland’s Chinese Communist Party-controlled judiciary, the territory maintains an independent common law system that forms the bedrock of its success as a global trade and finance hub.
However, two pro-Beijing newspapers in the territory — and a vocal group of pro-government politicians — have begun calling for reforms to the judiciary.
Earlier this month, those calls won backing in a speech by Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office Deputy Director Zhang Xiaoming (張曉明).
Beijing loyalists have been incensed by the acquittals of some pro-democracy protesters — often by judges with harsh words to say about police behavior and the gathering of evidence — and judicial reviews that have gone against the Hong Kong government.
A High Court judge last week delivered a damning ruling against police in a case linked to last year’s huge and often violent pro-democracy protests.
The judgement, which can be appealed, found that police officers were wrong to hide their identification badges and that the police watchdog had been “inadequate” in investigating complaints.
Pro-Beijing newspaper Ta Kung Pao ran a scathing report on the ruling under the headline “Thugs rule, no human rights for policemen,” an article that sparked a call from the influential Hong Kong Bar Association for the government to vocally defend the independence of the judiciary.
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