HONG KONG (Reuters) - Hong Kong's highest court dismissed on Friday an appeal by two pro-independence lawmakers contesting their disqualification from the legislature, effectively ruling out their return to the political fold in the Chinese-ruled city.
China's parliament made a controversial interpretation of Hong Kong's mini-constitution that effectively barred Baggio Leung and Yau Wai-ching from taking office last year. A Hong Kong court ruled they hadn't taken their oaths of office properly after inserting several digs at China.
In July, four other pro-democracy lawmakers were disqualified for improper oath-taking.
Leung and Yau said they were "deeply disappointed" by the Court of Final Appeal decision after being democratically elected.
"We can be disqualified, we can even be put into jail ... but the Hong Kong people's aspirations for freedom and democracy, fair(ness) and justice should never, never bow to Beijing," Leung told reporters outside the court.
Hong Kong, a former British colony that returned to Chinese rule in 1997, is governed under a "one country, two systems" formula enshrining freedoms not enjoyed on the mainland, though critics say this autonomy is coming under increasing pressure from China's Communist Party leaders.
Last week, 16 pro-democracy activists including 20-year-old Joshua Wong, 27-year-old Alex Chow, and 24-year-old former lawmaker Nathan Law, were jailed for their involvement in various protests in recent years including the "Occupy" street demonstrations in late 2014.
The jailing of Wong, Chow and Law sparked international and domestic criticism including a weekend protest drawing more than 22,000 people, fuelling concern that Hong Kong's judiciary, long considered one of the most independent in Asia, had succumbed to political pressure.
Reuters reported that Hong Kong's justice secretary, Rimsky Yuen, had overruled other legal officials when they advised against pursuing prison terms for Wong, Chow and Law - who had previously been sentenced to non-jail terms by a lower court.
Hong Kong authorities have repeatedly denied any "political motive" in seeking to jail the trio.
With the legal proceeding over and the duo not taking back their legislative posts, Hong Kong authorities say they will start planning by-elections to fill their two vacant seats in the city's 70-seat Legislative Council.
"We won’t make any small political moves to achieve certain election results. It will be fair and just,” Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam said of the vote.
Leung and Yau also face separate unlawful assembly charges over an attempt to barge into a legislative council meeting in November, that could lead to jail terms when they're sentenced later in the year.
(Reporting by Christine Chan and James Pomfret; Editing by Nick Macfie, Robert Birsel)