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HONG KONG (Reuters) - Lawyers and opposition politicians in Hong Kong warned on Thursday against what they termed Chinese interference in a legal case that they say could undermine the independence of the judiciary in the financial hub.
The controversy over the court case is the latest in a string of issues that has raised tension between China and the free-wheeling former British territory that was promised autonomy when it returned to Chinese rule 15 years ago.
The latest furore concerns the Hong Kong government's proposal to ask its highest court to seek Beijing's interpretation of a case to determine whether about 300,000 foreign domestic helpers are entitled to the right of abode.
Lawyers, pro-democracy members of Hong Kong's assembly and legal scholars are outraged by the government's proposal, not so much because they fear for the rights of domestic workers, but because they object to a committee of China's parliament making decisions for the city.
Simon Young, a barrister and professor of law at the University of Hong Kong, said the Beijing-backed Hong Kong government's decision to refer the legal case to Beijing was "shocking".
"There are increasing concerns about the judiciary and its ability to maintain the quality of justice as it has in the past," Young told Reuters.
Hong Kong's mini-constitution, known as he Basic Law, allows China to make decisions on external affairs and defence.
But the city of about 7 million people is meant to make its own decisions on most internal affairs under a "one-country, two-systems" formula agreed when it reverted to Chinese rule.
But Beijing's critics see China's invisible hand extending increasingly into domestic affairs. It has even triggered public resentment and anti-government protests in Hong Kong this year.
Mark Daly, a lawyer for Evangeline Vallejos, a domestic helper whose right of abode case goes to the Court of Final Appeal in February, rejected any interpretation of Hong Kong's law by Beijing.
"Instead of relying on the judiciary to interpret in an open and transparent way what our Basic Law means, by going to a body where there is no transparency of process, that's contrary to the very essence of the rule of law," said Daly.
Hong Kong's justice secretary, Rimsky Yuen, dismissed fears for the independence of the city's judiciary.
"There can hardly be any damage to the rule of law or jeopardising of our judicial independence," Yuen told reporters.
But he said Beijing could help "facilitate a proper interpretation of the right of abode for all categories of persons."
Additional reporting by Grace Li and Venus Wu; Editing by Robert Birsel