By Venus Wu
HONG KONG (Reuters) - More than 1,000 Hong Kong lawyers dressed in black marched through the heart of the city in silence on Tuesday to condemn a move by China that effectively bars two elected pro-independence lawmakers from taking their seats in the legislature.
The former British colony returned to China in 1997 under a "one country, two systems" agreement that ensured its freedoms, including a separate legal system. But Beijing has ultimate control and some Hong Kong people are concerned it is increasingly interfering to head off dissent.
Local and foreign lawyers walked from the High Court to the city's highest court, underscoring growing concern among Hong Kong's legal elite with how Beijing has handled affairs in the "special administrative region" of Communist Party-ruled China.
Organizers said more than 2,000 took part in the fourth and largest silent protest by the city’s lawyers since 1997. Police said 1,700 attended at the peak.
The lawyers bowed their heads to observe three minutes’ silence outside the colonial Court of Final Appeal building, lit up beneath the statue of Lady Justice.
"I thank you, I salute you, I love you all,” veteran pro-democracy barrister Martin Lee, looking pained, told the crowd at the end of the rally.
The demonstration follows a decision by China's parliament to interpret Hong Kong's mini-constitution, or Basic Law, to effectively bar the independence lawmakers from taking their oaths of office.
Beijing's ruling on Monday that oaths for Hong Kong lawmakers must be taken accurately, sincerely and solemnly for them to be valid, just as a local judicial review of the case was under way, rattled many in the legal profession, political circles and beyond.
The interpretation came as the High Court was set to decide if pro-independence lawmakers Baggio Leung, 30, and Yau Wai-Ching, 25, may be disqualified after they displayed a "Hong Kong is not China" banner during a swearing-in ceremony in October which resulted in their oaths being invalidated.
"I’m very disappointed, not just for Hong Kong but for China," said solicitor John Clancey who marched at the front of the procession.
"I think China recognizes that one of the most precious things we have here is the independence of the judiciary and the rule of law," he said. "In the guise of putting forth an interpretation, they really have attempted to legislate for Hong Kong ... The disappointment comes in because I think they really rushed things through ... to interfere with the court decision."
The Hong Kong Bar Association, which represents more than 1,000 barristers, expressed regret over the interpretation, saying it would "do more harm than good" and gave the impression that Beijing was effectively legislating for Hong Kong.
Hong Kong has thrived as a financial and legal center thanks in part to its independent rule of law, which many now perceive to be under threat.
"For (Beijing), politics is more important than the legal system. I think with this interpretation we can see politics trumps all," said solicitor David Hui as he marched.
"When we were young, we believed we could have democracy after the handover, and we could have ‘one country, two systems.’ But now we know we have been lied to."
As the lawyers marched, about a dozen pro-Beijing protesters taunted them outside of the High Court, some shouting obscenities through loudspeakers. One Beijing loyalist held up a placard that read: "Rioters mess up Hong Kong."
Chinese officials said the interpretation was beneficial to Hong Kong's rule of law.
"It has not and it will not affect the judicial independence in Hong Kong," said Deputy Commissioner of the Commissioner's Office of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Hong Kong, Song Ru'an.
"On the contrary, it will only improve and strengthen Hong Kong's rule of law with the Basic Law at its core."
The last march by the legal community, in June 2014, was in response to a white paper by China's cabinet that declared "loving the country" was a basic political requirement for all Hong Kong administrators, including judges and judicial personnel.
Hong Kong was also rocked by months of street protests calling for democracy in 2014 and more recently by calls for independence.
(Reporting by Venus Wu, Additional reporting by Pak Yiu and Jess Macy Yu. Writing by Anne Marie Roantree; Editing by Nick Macfie)