By Venus Wu
HONG KONG (Reuters) - The Hong Kong government failed in an unprecedented legal attempt on Tuesday to halt the swearing-in of two newly elected lawmakers seeking to push for independence for the autonomous region.
High Court Judge Thomas Au rejected its last-ditch request for an injunction against a decision allowing the two lawmakers to re-take their oath of office at Hong Kong's Legislative Council on Wednesday.
Au did approve the government's request for a judicial review of the case, which will take place early next month. By that time, they could already be serving in the legislature.
Yau Wai-ching, 25, and Baggio Leung, 30, were initially barred by legislative authorities last week after pledging their allegiance to the "Hong Kong nation" and displaying a "Hong Kong is not China" banner when they first attempted to take office.
The pair's oath-taking was an early test of their determination to push independence issues into mainstream Hong Kong politics. It also showed the depth of the pro-Beijing establishment's anger at the challenge they represent.
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China’s representative office in the city issued a statement last Friday expressing "great indignation and strong condemnation" over their statements last Wednesday.
Pressure has mounted since then from pro-Beijing groups and politicians, who said they were outraged by the derogatory terms for China and swear words they said were used. The pair denied using such language.
The topic of independence was once regarded as taboo in the former British colony, now governed under the "one country, two systems" principle since its return to Chinese rule in 1997.
But some young people have started demanding greater autonomy, ranging from self-determination to independence, after months of pro-democracy protests in 2014 failed to secure any concessions from Beijing.
Government lawyers were specifically challenging a decision by the legislature's new president Andrew Leung to allow the pair to re-take their oaths this week.
The government's writ stated Leung had no power to re-administer the oaths to the pair as, given their actions, they were disqualified from taking office under the law.
"Leung and Yau have manifested an intent ... that they did not intend to make the Legislative Council oath or be bound by it," the writ states.
The oath requires legislators to swear allegiance to the "Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People's Republic of China."
Andrew Leung said earlier on Tuesday that he was opposed to the government's move and had instructed the legislature's lawyers on the matter.
In refusing the injunction, Judge Au said barring the newly elected lawmakers would "result in the confusion of the public" and harm the "sanctity and solemnity" of the legislature.
Yau said afterwards that the government was destroying the vital separation of powers between it and lawmakers while Leung said: "Hong Kong can't afford to lose this case".
Hong Kong leader Leung Chun-ying said last Friday that the pair's statements "seriously affected the relationship between Hong Kong and mainland people."
The rise of independence debates has sparked concern among some senior government officials and judges that Beijing might pressure Hong Kong to pass tough new laws to explicitly outlaw any such discussions, or invoke rarely used powers to tweak Hong Kong's mini-constitution known as the Basic Law.
The document codifies Chinese sovereignty, but also guarantees extensive freedoms for Hong Kong people, with a separate legal system and autonomy for its government.
(Reporting by Venus Wu; Writing by Greg Torode; Editing by Tom Heneghan)