Hong Kong lawyers express concern over court decision to permit 'political screening'

Hong Kong pro-independence activist Andy Chan speaking to members of the media after being barred from standing for election, on Feb 13, 2018. PHOTO: REUTERS

HONG KONG (REUTERS) - A group of Hong Kong lawyers expressed concern on Wednesday (Feb 14) over a court decision allowing low-ranking government officials to vet election candidates in the Chinese-ruled city, which they said amounted to "political screening".

The Hong Kong Bar Association, which represents more than 1,400 barristers in the former British colony, issued a statement after Tuesday's judgement that also ruled it is"fundamental" for lawmakers to accept the city as an inalienable part of China.

High Court Judge Thomas Au dismissed the case of Hong Kong National Party founder Andy Chan, who advocated the city's secession from China, an end to its "one country, two systems" principle and the abolition of its mini-Constitution, the Basic Law.

Judge Au ruled that a returning officer could throw out a candidate's nomination when, after looking into his personal and political beliefs, he thinks there is enough evidence to show the candidate does not intend to uphold the Basic Law.

"This regrettably is equivalent to the introduction of a political screening process for any prospective candidate, and there is no fair, open, certain and clear procedure to regulate this process," the association said in the statement.

"It is particularly worrying that the requirement of 'upholding the Basic Law' is a vague and imprecise political concept, which has now to be interpreted and administered by a civil servant under a closed-door inquiry."

Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997 with the promise of a high degree of autonomy under the "one country, two systems" formula, but activists see evidence of growing interference by Beijing.

Hong Kong and Chinese authorities have repeatedly condemned calls for independence, citing the Basic Law, which stipulates that the city is an inalienable part of China.

Communist Party rulers in Beijing tightened their grip over the city after many young activists, disillusioned after the large-scale "Umbrella Movement" demonstrations in 2014 failed to bring full democracy, began calling for independence.

Hong Kong's returning officers barred six activists, including Mr Chan, from running for seats in a 2016 city-wide legislature election.

The election's reputation took another hit when six opposition activists who won seats were kicked out of the legislature after a series of controversial court cases and a legal interpretation from the Parliament in Beijing.

Their vacant seats triggered a by-election for next month, but returning officers recently disqualified three candidates, including 21-year-old pro-democracy activist Agnes Chow, a case that prompted criticism from the European Union and the bar association.

The "one country, two systems" formula allows Hong Kong an independent, British-style judicial system, with lawyers split into barristers and solicitors.

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