Hong Kong's top barrister body on Thursday condemned an arson attack on a court building carried out a day earlier that police said was the work of anti-government protesters.
The Hong Kong Bar Association, the professional regulatory body for the city's barristers, said it "strongly deplored" the attack on Sha Tin Magistrates' Court in the New Territories, which started a blaze that left a two-metre burn mark on a wall.
The judiciary has largely been left alone throughout months of social unrest gripping Hong Kong despite increasingly violent clashes between protesters and police.
But the Bar in a statement on Thursday said it was hard to imagine an act "more corrosive to the rule of law" than the incident on Wednesday night.
"The attack on the court building stands out because of its symbolism," the statement said. "It represents an attack on the independent judicial authority of (Hong Kong)."
A group of masked protesters dressed in black had been seen at about 9pm on Wednesday burning objects near a wall that surrounds the court building, a police source said.
Firefighters were called to the scene and found the wall damaged and a can of paint thinner on the floor.
A spokesman for the judiciary said it had reported the case to police for follow-up action.
Asked whether it would step up measures to protect the safety of judges, the spokesman said the judiciary "would review the situation from time to time and take appropriate security measures as necessary".
A Department of Justice spokesman said the government would not tolerate any attacks on the judiciary or judicial independence.
"The secretary for justice urges members of the public to respect the rule of law," the spokesman said.
A photograph capturing the flower bed at the base of the wall being set on fire was circulated in a channel used by protesters on instant messaging app Telegram.
The image, posted at 9.19pm on Wednesday, was accompanied by the caption: "Sha Tin Court. No public justice. No rule of law. We don't need you."
The incident took place shortly after Hong Kong's High Court declined an application by Chinese University of Hong Kong student union president Jacky So Tsun-fung for a court order to bar police from entering the campus without a warrant. His bid came a day after an intense clash between protesters and riot police at the entrance to the university in Sha Tin.
Chief superintendent John Tse Chun-chung of the police's public relations branch drew a connection between the ruling and the arson attack, saying "rioters" had targeted the court because they were unhappy with the decision. He did not offer evidence to support his claim.
"This shows rioters are blatantly damaging the independence of the judiciary and disrespecting the rule of law - one core value that every Hong Kong person takes pride in," he said.
Hong Kong's courts have largely escaped the wrath of protesters since the anti-government protests began in June, although the Post has learned that security cameras outside the Court of Final Appeal in Central have been damaged.
However, several rulings have still come in for criticism. An injunction order granted to police to prevent officers being harassed and their private details being published online was criticised by protesters and their supporters. Government backers meanwhile have rapped the courts for what they perceive as lenient sentences for demonstrators.
A police sergeant has also accused Hong Kong magistrates of "encouraging rioters" following an unconfirmed report alleging some had refused to answer phone calls from officers at weekends when the latter were trying to obtain search warrants.
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