May 11, 2018 / 7:30 AM / 3 months ago

Two ex-Hong Kong lawmakers convicted of unlawful assembly, further sapping dissent movement

HONG KONG (Reuters) - A Hong Kong court on Friday found two pro-independence activists guilty of unlawful assembly inside the legislature while they were still lawmakers, dealing a further blow to waning political dissent in the Chinese-ruled territory.

FILE PHOTO: Pro-independence activists Yau Wai-Ching (R) and Baggio Leung meet journalists outside High Court after they lost an appeal against their disqualification as lawmakers in Hong Kong, China November 30, 2016. REUTERS/Bobby Yip/File Photo

Opposition leaders and supporters are fighting multiple court cases and Friday’s verdict in Kowloon City Magistrates’ Courts is likely to further dent the confidence of activists calling for full democracy, or even outright independence for the former British colony, a red line for Beijing.

Baggio Leung, 31, and Yau Wai-ching, 26, were democratically elected and then dramatically ousted from the Legislative Council for the way in which they took their oaths, criticizing China, in late 2016.

Before they were officially disqualified, the pair tried to barge into a room along with at least eight assistants, scuffling with security officers meanwhile.

“Regardless of whether they were still Legislative Council members on that day, they would not be exempted from criminal liability on account of their capacity as council members,” wrote magistrate Wong Sze-lai in the 65-paged verdict.

“Their acts were likely to cause any person reasonably to fear that the persons so assembled would commit a breach of the peace.”

Three assistants were also found guilty of the same charge.

Leung and Yau told reporters they would decide whether to appeal after sentencing on June 4, but that they were “actively considering it”.

The two were once seen as potential leaders of a fledging movement calling for Hong Kong’s secession from China. Yau was the youngest woman ever elected to the legislature.

Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” formula which promises it a high degree of autonomy and freedoms not enjoyed in mainland China.

But the perception that China is increasingly encroaching upon the city’s freedoms has spurred a young generation of activists, many taking to the streets in months of pro-democracy protests in 2014 and some calling for outright independence.

Communist Party leaders in Beijing, sensitive to calls for independence spreading to the mainland, have repeatedly slammed the movement. President Xi Jinping warned last year that any attempt to endanger China’s sovereignty would be an act that crosses a “red line”.

The oath-taking incident triggered China’s parliament to issue an interpretation over Hong Kong’s mini-constitution while a court case over their seats was under way.

The act spurred roughly 2,000 lawyers to protest against what they called China’s interference in the city’s much vaunted judicial independence.

Leung and Yau’s disqualifications, as well as the arrest of pro-independence leader Edward Leung on rioting charges, sapped the secessionist movement of its steam. It has now largely gone underground.

Reporting by Venus Wu; Editing by Nick Macfie

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