The removal of elected pro-democracy lawmakers from office and the disqualification of fresh candidates by election officials ahead of Sunday's Legislative Council (LegCo) by election in Hong Kong has cast doubt on the legitimacy of the forthcoming poll, a rights group has said.
The "political screening" of candidates and the erosion of the city's promised autonomy by intervention from the ruling Chinese Communist Party have cast doubt on the validity of the elections and violated the city's traditional rights and freedoms, a report from Hong Kong Watch said.
It said the removal of six democratically elected LegCo members after their oaths were judged insufficiently solemn and sincere by a ruling from China's National People's Congress (NPC) standing committee was "an illegal infringement which ... violates rights enshrined in Hong Kong’s constitution, including freedom of speech and the right to stand in elections."
It said the move went against the "one country, two systems" framework agreed in a bilateral Sino-British treaty ahead of the 1997 handover.
Meanwhile, the screening out of candidates judged to hold pro-independence views for the elections to replace the banished lawmakers was "an unacceptable breach of human rights" enshrined in the city's mini-constitution, the Basic Law, and the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984, the report said.
"It undermines Hong Kong’s rule of law and its reputation as a free and open city," Hong Kong Watch said in a statement accompanying the report.
As the report was published, unknown activists hung a large yellow banner from a rock above Hong Kong's Kowloon Tong district protesting the disqualification of candidates and lawmakers.
The long banner was similar in style to one demanding fully democratic elections to LegCo and for the post of chief executive that hung from the "ear" of Lion Rock during the 2014 Occupy Central pro-democracy movement.
It was rapidly removed by fire and rescue services.
The Hong Kong Watch report said the disqualification of potential election candidates beginning with Demosisto's Agnes Chow earlier this year was unconstitutional.
"It is a breach of the Basic Law for the Returning Officer, a civil servant, to take the power to conduct political screening," the report said, echoing objections made last month by the Hong Kong Bar Association. "These decisions should be the made by the judiciary."
Chow is a key member of the pro-democracy party Demosisto, which was formed by the leaders of the 2014 Occupy Central movement, and which espouses “self-determination” for the city, which was promised a “high degree of autonomy” following the 1997 handover to Chinese rule.
Several candidates including localist Ventus Lau and Sha Tin district councillor James Chan have since been barred from standing by electoral officers over their political views.
Hong Kong Watch said that six LegCo members removed over their oaths of allegiance should be reinstated.
When the NPC standing committee issued its "interpretation" of the Basic Law, as it is entitled to do, in November 2016, its decree amounted to an interpretation of local laws, or an addendum to the city's constitution, it said.
"This is an unlawful intervention, and therefore ‘The Interpretation’ is an illegal infringement which undermines one-country, two-systems," Hong Kong Watch said.
It said the six elected LegCo members were stripped of their seats on the basis that the interpretation had taken effect in 1997.
"The retroactive punishment of Legislative Council members undermines rule of law and common law principles, breaching the right to a fair trial," the report said, calling the move "patently absurd."
"The demand that retroactively disqualified lawmakers repay their salaries, and the salaries of their staff, is a particular concern," it said.
Former British Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind said that the report was "disturbing" and showed that Beijing isn't delivering on its promises.
"It demonstrates that the obligations that the Chinese Government accepted in 1997 are being eroded," Rifkind said in a preface to the report. "The steps being taken as regards disqualification of candidates reinforce the concern that there may be a strategy to diminish Hong Kong’s autonomy in a step by step process over the years."
Reported by RFA's Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.