Hong Kong's high court on Wednesday began its consideration of an attempt by the city's government to have four pan-democratic lawmakers stripped of their seats, in an ongoing row over their oaths of allegiance.
The government has asked the High Court to disqualify former democracy protest leader Nathan Law of the Demosisto party, veteran rights activist and League of Social Democrats member 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).
Officials say the four intentionally took their oaths of office "without solemnity and sincerity," qualities which were required by Beijing's parliament in a retroactive ruling on the row.
Instead, the lawmakers had used their swearing-in ceremonies to change the wording to convey their own political messages, government lawyer Johnny Mok told the court.
The move has sparked fears that a political purge of pro-democratic voices is under way in the former British colony after lawmakers-elect Yau Wai-ching and Sixtus Leung were formally barred from taking up their seats last year.
The duo, both members of the youth group Youngspiration, lost a court case that argued their oaths of allegiance, taken on Oct. 12, were invalid, both in the High Court and on appeal in the Supreme Court.
They had vowed allegiance to the "Hong Kong Nation" and carried banners saying "Hong Kong is not China" during their swearing-in ceremonies.
Oaths must be 'solemn and sincere'
They also used a historical slur to refer to China, with Yau inserting swear-words into her oath.
The standing committee of China's rubber-stamp parliament, the National People's Congress (NPC) intervened in the row with a ruling that only "solemn and sincere" oaths would be accepted from public office-holders.
Democracy Groundwork's Lau Siu-lai told RFA the court case is entirely politically motivated.
"The [NPC] interpretation was made after the fact, and to make it take effect retroactively is an unnecessary form of political repression," Lau said.
"This is a form of political oppression, even political persecution," Lau said on Wednesday as the court hearing began. "The legal fees are a huge [financial] burden without legal aid, which we have to pay ourselves, and yet the government can bring this case on the public purse."
"If it gets as far as appeal, or even the Court of Final Appeal, the costs will be eyewatering, and very hard for individual LegCo members to meet," she said.
The lawmakers' lawyer, barrister and former Democratic Party chairman Martin Lee, told the court that the four were basing their behavior on what had previously been deemed acceptable by LegCo.
All eyes on court
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, Lee argued.
He said Leung Kwok-hung had been accepted by LegCo after taking his oaths in a similar manner on four previous occasions.
Leung called on the court to uphold Hong Kong's legal system.
"Were the Hong Kong judges able to uphold the common law, then I would be 400 percent confident of success," he said. "But we will have to see what the High Court judges do now that there has been an interpretation [by the NPC]."
"Will they be able to uphold our bottom line [and separate legal systems], that is the most important thing. That and the votes cast for us as LegCo members."
If the government succeeds in disqualifying all six lawmakers, the pan-democratic camp will retain its power to veto constitutional changes, but would be weakened when voting on any other business.
Democratic politicians won 29 out of 70 seats in September's LegCo elections.
Local media reports said at least four additional lawmakers could face similar judicial reviews in the weeks and months to come.
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 for RFA's Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.