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Hong Kong pro-democracy legislators disqualified from parliament

A Hong Kong court has disqualified four pro-democracy lawmakers for failing to sincerely take the oath of office, a huge blow to the city’s opposition.

The four lawmakers – Nathan Law, Lau Siu-lai, Edward Yiu and “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung – all modified their oaths during a swearing-in ceremony in October 2016.

Their disqualifications mean the pro-democracy camp has lost its veto power over major legislation, one of the most powerful tools in a parliament stacked with pro-establishment legislators.

The verdict is sure to have a chilling effect on political speech among those agitating for greater democracy, discouraging open challenges to the Chinese government.

The disqualifications come after two popularly elected pro-independence legislators were ejected in November. Their oaths, in which they pledged allegiance to the “Hong Kong nation” and used an expletive to refer to China, were ruled invalid and they were barred from taking their seats.

Hong Kong politicians defy China as they are sworn in

The protest by Yau Wai-ching and Sixtus Leung prompted Beijing to rewrite the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, in a rare and highly controversial move that sparked street protests.

The move was the most direct intervention in the city’s politics since Britain handed over Hong Kong to China in 1997, and dealt a major blow to a campaign led by the city’s younger generation for greater autonomy or outright independence.

The Chinese government declared those wishing to hold public office must “sincerely and solemnly” declare allegiance to China. Lawmakers are required to swear allegiance to the “the Hong Kong special administrative region of the People’s Republic of China”.

But for years it has been a tradition among the pro-democracy camp, which has never held a majority in parliament, to add small acts of defiance during the swearing-in ceremony.

Law prefaced his oath with a quote from Ghandi and a pledge to serve the Hong Kong people rather than “the powers that be”.

“You can even destroy this body, but you will never imprison my mind,” he said.

“I will go through the necessary procedure, but it doesn’t mean I will bend and bow to absolute authority,” he added. “I will never bear allegiance to the powers that be that kills its people.”

Lau paused for six seconds between each word, taking 10 minutes to read the 77-word declaration. That attempt was ruled invalid, but she was allowed to retake the oath and sworn in.

She later wrote on Facebook that the slow-motion reading was meant to show the affirmation was “meaningless”.

Yiu made an addition to the oath, saying: “I will uphold procedural justice in Hong Kong, fight for genuine universal suffrage and serve the city’s sustainable development.”

Yiu’s first attempts was also rejected by the legislature’s president, but he was allowed to retake the oath.

“Long Hair” Leung held a yellow umbrella during his oath, a symbol of the city’s 2014 democracy protests, and chanted calls for direct elections for Hong Kong’s leader.

Lawmakers who are disqualified would have to be replaced in a byelection, which is supposed to occur within 21 days after all appeals are exhausted. That could take months as the cases will eventually be heard by Hong Kong’s highest court.

“It is a blow to the cause of democracy in Hong Kong, but not a devastating one,” said Suzanne Pepper, a fellow at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and author of Keeping Democracy at Bay: Hong Kong and the Challenge of Chinese Political Reform. “If there’s a will, there’s a way, as long as everyone – activists, candidates, and voters – does not just give up the struggle.

“Future pro-democracy candidates will be scrupulous in all their messaging, and in their oath-taking, to avoid giving the authorities any excuse to disqualify,” Pepper added. “Candidates and voters will learn to do what they have already begun to do: read between the lines of the campaign materials and party manifestos and make choices accordingly.”

Barring Yau and Sixtus Leung in November, the judge said the pair “manifestly refused … to solemnly, sincerely and truly bind themselves” to Hong Kong’s laws, citing statements the judge said showed they made “a wilful and deliberate attempt … to insult China”.

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