HONG KONG (Reuters) - Hong Kong's high court on Friday expelled four opposition lawmakers from the city's legislature after it invalidated their oaths of office, a ruling that undermines the influence of the opposition in favour of pro-China legislators.
A former British colony, Hong Kong reverted to China 20 years ago under a "one country, two systems" formula that guaranteed a range of freedoms not enjoyed in China, including a direct vote for half of the 70-seat legislative assembly.
A group of young political activists chaffing against what they see as undue Beijing interference, won seats in an assembly election last year, and some made gestures of defiance at their swearing-in, which authorities have said ruled them out.
Activists say the city government's efforts in disqualifying democratically elected lawmakers is a direct assault on the city's freedoms.
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, and it effectively barred two elected pro-independence politicians from office.
Among the four disqualified on Friday was Nathan 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 PRC as a legitimate sovereign of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region," the court said in a summary of its ruling, referring to the People's Republic of China.
Another of those disqualified was veteran activist Leung Kwok-hung, known as "Long Hair". At his swearing-in he had brandished a yellow umbrella - the symbol of the 2014 protests - bearing pro-democracy messages, tore up a piece of paper with more protest messages and truncated his oath.
Lecturer Lau Siu-lai, who spoke to crowds about democracy during the protests, was disqualified for reading out her oath very slowly, and surveyor Edward Yiu was removed because he added words to his oath.
In issuing the verdict, judge Au, who disqualified the two pro-independence lawmakers in November, said concern about political pressure behind the verdict was "at best speculative and the conclusions are illogical".
The disqualified lawmakers said they were looking into filing appeals.
"Political suppression is not the scariest. What's the scariest is if people become used to it and aren't willing to fight against it," Law said.
About 60 of supporters of the four shouted "shame" outside the court while about 30 Beijing supporters shouted "rubbish legislators, kick them out".
Human Rights Watch senior Maya Wang said the verdicts represented "another alarming blow to Hong Kong's fast deteriorating autonomy".
"It is used to excise some elected pro-democracy activists from the legislature, to rig the system further in favour of pro-Beijing politicians," she said in an email.
The opposition won 30 of the Legislative Council's 70 seats last September, giving it a comfortable margin in maintaining a veto over most legislation and, most critically, the 24 votes needed for a one-third bloc to veto changes to the city's mini constitution, the Basic Law.
But the bloc shrunk in November after the disqualification of the two activists. Now with 24 seats - one held by a centrist lawmaker - and with four more of them facing legal battles - the opposition risks losing its veto power.
Separately, Hong Kong's new chief executive, Carrie Lam, who has vowed to build a stronger relationship with the opposition, said she would not intervene in the case.
"I don't think this chief executive, or any government official, should compromise on the rule of law just because we want to be friendly," she said at a Reuters Newsmaker event.
Reporting by William Ho and Jasper Ng; Additional reporting by Pak Yiu, James Pomfret, Martin Howell, Venus Wu and Clare Baldwin; Editing by Clarence Fernandez, Robert Birsel