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Legislative Council oath-taking saga

Court asked to disqualify four Hong Kong lawmakers for ‘theatrical’ oaths carrying political messages

Prosecution says declarations fell short of legal requirements, but defence counsel argues they can only be unseated for refusing or neglecting to take oath

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 01 March, 2017, 3:43pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 01 March, 2017, 11:23pm

Government lawyers asked a court on Wednesday to disqualify four pro-democracy legislators for “embedding messages” into oaths that were read in a “theatrical performance” when they were supposed to pledge allegiance to Hong Kong at their swearing-in.

But defence counsel Martin Lee Chu-ming SC countered that the government could only unseat a lawmaker if it proved he or she had refused or neglected to take the oath.

“They failed to take the oath as required by law but they didn’t refuse to take the oath,” he told High Court judge Mr Justice Thomas Au Hing-cheung.

Watch: Lau Siu-lai takes oath in slow motion

Lee was referring to university professor ­Edward Yiu Chung-yim, former Occupy student leader Nathan Law Kwun-chung, lecturer Lau Siu-lai, and his client, veteran activist “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung.

At issue is whether the court should declare their oaths, taken on October 12 last year, invalid and vacate their seats.

Johnny Mok Shiu-luen SC, for Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying and Secretary for Justice Rimsky Yuen Kwok-keung, said Beijing’s interpretation of the Basic Law not only targeted messages of independence and self-determination, but also “overall conduct” during the oath-taking.

Four Hong Kong lawmakers facing disqualification win more time to prepare defence

He said all four lawmakers’ oaths fell short of three legal requirements – solemnity, sincerity and non-departure from the form and substance of the prescribed oath.

Yiu and Law were both accused of adding words to their oaths. What Law said in particular could be objectively understood as claiming his oath-taking was “an involuntary act on his part which does not reflect his true beliefs or state of mind”.

Mok also argued that Lau had embedded a message through her delivery, deliberately reading each word at six-second intervals as her oath “became 90-odd linguistic units devoid of any coherence”.

“It matters not what the message was,” Mok continued. “The point is none of these messages are permitted by the Oaths and Declarations Ordinance.”

He accused Leung Kwok-hung of undermining the solemnity of the occasion by chanting slogans, wearing a T-shirt that read “civil disobedience” and turning his oath into a “theatrical performance” – brandishing a yellow umbrella, a symbol of the Occupy movement, and tearing up a copy of the controversial political reform framework decreed by Beijing in 2014.

Mok stressed the swearing-in ceremony was not the time to exercise freedoms of speech and expression, as claimed by the four.

“This is the occasion for one and only one purpose, to swear allegiance to the HKSAR,” he said.

Watch: Three Hong Kong lawmakers have oaths rejected

All lawmakers were aware of the “clear and unambiguous” requirements prescribed by law, he continued, but the four “deliberately took risks in order to express certain views”.

“If the judge is not permitted to do this, if the chief executive is not permitted to do this, if the principal officials are not permitted to do this, why are only Legislative Council members entitled to do this? It’s absurd to suggest this entitlement.”

But Lee, who admitted that he personally did not approve of such conduct in the legislature, argued that the only standard guiding legislative conduct – the Rules of Procedure – did not stipulate how the oaths should be taken.

Lawmakers were also not forewarned of the consequences of improper oath-taking when his client alone had pulled similar stunts in the past four councils.

“Nobody could have imagined what was thought to be permissible would turn out wrong and cause them to lose their seats,” Lee said.

Outside court, Leung expressed a worry that he might be bankrupted by legal costs as he revealed that he had only about HK$100,000 left in his bank account after paying a HK$1.2 million deposit.

The three-day hearing follows the disqualification of two pro-independence Youngspiration lawmakers, Sixtus Baggio Leung Chung-hang and Yau Wai-ching, over their oaths.