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4 Hong Kong lawmakers disqualified from parliament

Nathan Law was detained by police last month during a protest against celebrations to mark the anniversary of the 1997 handover of Hong Kong to China. Photo: Getty Images

Hong Kong's high court on Friday disqualified four pro-democracy lawmakers for failing to sincerely take the oath of office, a huge blow to the city's opposition.

The four legislators in question -- Nathan Law, Lau Siu Lai, Edward Yiu and Leung Kwok-hung, known among locals as "Long Hair" -- were elected to the Hong Kong Legislative Council, known locally as LegCo, last year.

All four used their oaths of office to protest attempts by Beijing to exert more control over internal affairs in Hong Kong, which has been an increasing concern of citizens in the city since the Chinese took control 20 years ago.

Though part of China, Hong Kong is a Special Administrative Region that enjoys far more freedom than cities in the Chinese mainland.

But locals worry that China is clamping down on this bustling metropolis of more than 7 million, violating the governing principle of "one country, two systems".

All four disqualified lawmakers were involved in the Occupy movement of 2014, when thousands took to the streets to demand democratic reforms --- including the unsuccessful demand that the city's leader, the Chief Executive, be directly elected by the people of Hong Kong.

In reaching his verdict, judge Thomas Au referred to a November ruling by China's parliament that city lawmakers must swear allegiance to Hong Kong as part of China and that candidates would be disqualified if they changed the wording of their oath or if they failed to take it in a sincere and solemn manner.

The November ruling was considered Beijing's most direct intervention in the city's legal and political system since the 1997 handover.

Among the four disqualified on Friday was Law, 24, the youngest person to win in a seat and a leader of the Umbrella movement protests in 2014.

Law was disqualified for adding words to his oath and adopting a tone of voice that "expressed a doubt on or disrespect of the status of the People's Republic of China as a legitimate sovereign of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region," the court said in a summary of its ruling.

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.

Hong Kong's new chief executive, Carrie Lam, who has vowed to build a stronger relationship with the opposition, said that she would not intervene in the case.

Activists said that the city government's efforts in disqualifying democratically elected lawmakers is a direct assault on the city's freedoms.

Demosisto, the political party which counts Law and activist Joshua Wong among its members, called the decision the "worst assault on our democracy."

"More than 180,000 voters had their voices silenced in the legislative body. Demosisto condemns the manifest interference of the Beijing government to cripple Hong Kong's legislative power," the group said in a statement. "In light of manipulation of election results by Beijing, it is more important than ever for Hong Kong to stay strong and firm against the autocracy."

The disqualifications also 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.

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.

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