Hong Kong's High Court on Friday issued a ruling stripping four pan-democratic lawmakers of their seats in the city's Legislative Council (LegCo), paring back an all-important veto power for pro-democratic voices in the chamber and sparking street protests in the former British colony.
The government asked the High Court to disqualify former democracy protest leader Nathan Law of the Demosisto party, rights activist Leung Kwok-hung, Lau Siu-lai from Democracy Groundwork and Edward Yiu, who represents the surveying profession, from their seats in the Legislative Council (LegCo).
Judge Thomas Au found that Law, of the post-Occupy Central party Demosisto, had raised the pitch of his voice while reading the words ‘People’s Republic of China’ as if he was asking a question.
This had given the impression that Law was being "forced" to pledge allegiance to the SAR and central governments, Au said.
Leung, a veteran activist from the League of Social Democrats, held up a yellow umbrella, a symbol of the 2014 Occupy movement, when he read his oath, and he also ripped up a piece of paper, acts which Au deemed "theatrical" and not befitting the dignity of the swearing-in ceremony.
Lau was judged to have read her oath extremely slowly, with pauses in between each word, suggesting that she wasn't "genuine" about the commitment she was making, while independent Yiu had added a line to his oath about fighting for genuine universal suffrage, Au found.
All four lawmakers were judged to have broken Hong Kong's Oaths and Declarations Ordinance, which Au said he had interpreted with repeated reference to a controversial interpretation issued by China's National People's Congress (NPC) standing committee last November.
"Solemnity and sincerity" were qualities required retroactively by the NPC standing committee, in a move that prompted street protests and widespread fears over the erosion of the city's judicial independence and political autonomy.
"The sole remaining channel for elected representatives to supervise the administration and the chief executive has now been lost," Leung told reporters after the ruling. "This is a result that no Hong Kong person should accept."
Pan-democratic lawmakers hit out at the decision, which will leave the democratic camp in LegCo potentially unable to block hugely unpopular subversion and national security legislation demanded by Beijing. It will also now be unable to vote down procedural rule changes favoring Beijing's supporters.
Law said the ruling had politicized Hong Kong's judiciary.
"The government may have tried to portray this as a legal dispute, but everyone knows that it has now dragged the courts into the political arena," he said.
"They have privileged their political decision, as well as the interpretation by the NPC, over the rule of law, and in doing so, have damaged the rule of law."
Lau said there is now scant difference between former unpopular chief executive Leung Chun-ying, current chief executive Carrie Lam and the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
"In one hand is the carrot, and in the other is the bludgeon of authoritarian government," she said.
"The stripping of our seats in LegCo today will pave the way for the passage of the Article 23 [national security] legislation, and it's clear to see where they were heading all along with this case and the interpretation."
"Our entire city of Hong Kong, and its people, are now facing a very grim situation," she said.
Edward Yiu said the move was likely a backlash from the powers-that-be in Beijing following the 2014 pro-democracy movement, which saw hundreds of thousands of people pour onto the streets at its height, in support of fully democratic elections.
"I think our new approach struck fear in the hearts of the government; fear of democratic lawmakers, so they pulled out all the stops to strip us of our seats," Yiu said.
"But the lower the government stoops, the harder we citizens will have to work," he said. "The democracy movement requires the support of everyone."
While Beijing was prepared in 2014 to allow one person, one vote, it refused to allow public nominations to ballot papers, meaning that all potential candidates would have to be vetted by officials.
"What has happened today is very clear," LegCo member James To told journalists after the ruling. "The Hong Kong government has declared war on the people of Hong Kong."
"These four legislators were still chosen by the people," To said. "The Hong Kong government has used Beijing's interpretation and deprived the people of their choice by brute force."
He said pan-democratic lawmakers had garnered the majority of the popular vote in the last LegCo elections, but their choices were being ignored.
Demosisto issued a statement saying that the choices of 180,000 voters had been taken from them, and hit out at "the manifest interference of the Beijing government to cripple Hong Kong's legislative power through reinterpretation of the Basic Law."
Several hundred people gathered in Hong Kong in a protest rally on Friday night, with participants saying the decision had been a huge blow to the rule of law.
"It's actually very hard to determine what is respectful [in terms of oath-taking]," a protester surnamed Duen told RFA. "How do you define that in law?"
"This was the result of a subjective judgment by the judge, for example in his finding that Nathan Law's voice rose slightly when saying 'The People's Republic of China.' How can they say that this is disrespectful?"
A protester surnamed Yeung said the decision had disrespected the will of the people.
"The people of Hong Kong elected those four people to LegCo by popular vote, and then they were disqualified by the government," she said. "But those four lawmakers each won more votes than the chief executive Carrie Lam."
"There is a huge mismatch between the number of votes won and the amount of power held," she said.
A fellow protester surnamed Chan said the decision hadn't only stripped the lawmakers of their seats.
"They have stripped the people of Hong Kong of the last of their freedoms, of democracy, of everything," Chan said. "You can tell from the people they vote in what kind of lawmakers the local people want to see, but the government and the communist party have grabbed all of the power, and there is only authoritarianism now, and no justice."
Before Beijing stepped in, there had been no rules about what constituted an acceptable manner of oath-taking, and lawmakers had previously been offered a second chance to take their oaths.
Democratic politicians won 29 out of 70 seats in September's LegCo elections.
In the past, pan-democrats have succeeded in blocking unpopular national security legislation as well as the 2014 proposals for electoral reforms that were slammed as "fake universal suffrage" by the Occupy Central movement.
Reported by Lam Kwok-lap and Hei Na for RFA's Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.