Four rebel Hong Kong lawmakers were in court Wednesday to fight a government bid to disqualify them from parliament, a move criticised as an attack on democracy under pressure from Beijing.
Hong Kong’s unpopular leader Leung Chun-ying and the justice department have brought the case against the pro-democracy legislators who they accuse of failing to properly take their oaths of office during their swearing-in last October.
It comes as fears grow that Beijing is increasingly interfering in semi-autonomous Hong Kong, sparking calls by some activists for self-determination or even independence for the city which have angered China.
“What’s happening today would never happen in a democratic society,” said one of the four targeted lawmakers, Leung Kwok-hung, known as “Long Hair”, as he entered Hong Kong’s High Court.
Two pro-independence lawmakers have already been banned from office by the High Court after they inserted expletives and draped themselves with “Hong Kong is not China” flags during the swearing-in.
That decision followed a special “interpretation” of the city’s constitution by Beijing that effectively prevented them from taking up their seats because of the way they took their oaths.
The four legislators in court Wednesday are not staunchly pro-independence but two of them have advocated self-determination for Hong Kong.
All four altered their oaths during the swearing-in, which requires lawmakers to repeatedly describe Hong Kong as a “special administrative region of China”.
Unlike the pro-independence activists, they were allowed to take up their seats. But the government is now seeking to remove them retrospectively.
Defence lawyer Martin Lee — himself a respected democracy campaigner — said there had been unorthodox readings of oaths in the past without disqualifications, and that lawmakers “could not have imagined” that they could lose their seats.
“This whole case is very political,” he told the court.
“You have the government attacking some of the legislators.”
Lee argued that the only justification for forcing them out of their seats would be if they had outright refused to take the pledge.
But prosecutor Johnny Mok questioned whether their oaths met requirements, including “solemnity and sincerity”.
Mok said lawmaker Nathan Law, who led massive pro-democracy rallies in 2014 and is the city’s youngest ever legislator, made an “invalid” oath.
Law quoted Gandhi before making the pledge, saying: “You will never imprison my mind”, and used intonation to make his oath sound like a question.
Legislator and former protest leader Lau Siu-lai read her pledge at a snail’s pace, which Mok said “cannot be said to be sincere”.
Veteran anti-China lawmaker Leung raised a yellow umbrella — a symbol of the democracy movement — during his pledge, which Mok said he turned into a “theatrical performance”.
The fourth defendant, Edward Yiu, added lines to his oath, saying he would “fight for general universal suffrage”, which Mok described as a conscious decision to alter the pledge.
Hong Kong is governed under a semi-autonomous “one country, two systems” deal after being handed back to China by Britain in 1997.
The framework is supposed to safeguard the city’s freedoms and way of life.
But there are growing concerns that its liberties are disappearing in a range of areas, from politics to media and education, as Beijing tightens its grip.