Ousted Hong Kong lawmakers ordered to pay hefty expense bills

Pro-democracy activist Nathan Law is interviewed by journalists outside the Final Court of Appeal after being granted bail in Hong Kong, China October 24, 2017. REUTERS/Bobby

HONG KONG (Reuters) - Four Hong Kong pro-democracy lawmakers who were ousted from the legislature this year condemned on Monday as "political persecution" a demand that they pay back hundreds of thousands of dollars in expenses.

A special legislative commission demanded that the lawmakers each pay up to HK$3.1 million ($397,400) in operating expenses and staff wages, the legislative council's president, Andrew Leung, said.

Critics say the demand for money is an attempt to bankrupt the four and pile pressure on the city's pro-democracy camp that has tried to challenge what it sees as increasing interference by Beijing despite a promise of autonomy in the financial hub.

Leung said the legislature had a duty to recover the funds, backdated to when the lawmakers first took office in October last year, as public money was involved.

The former lawmakers - Nathan Law, veteran activist Leung Kwok-hung otherwise known as "long hair", lecturer Lau Siu-lai, and surveyor Edward Yiu - would be given four weeks to respond, after which the legislature would decide what to do.

"This is raw political persecution," said Law, 24, who was jailed in August on an unlawful assembly charge linked to Hong Kong's pro-democracy "Occupy" protests in 2014, but who is out on bail pending an appeal.

"It's preposterous," Law added at a news conference held with the other three.

Another of the expelled lawmakers, Yiu, said the four had worked hard as lawmakers over nine months, and they should be compensated for that, and not punished unjustly.

Hong Kong's High Court expelled the four from the 70-member legislature in July after judging their oaths of office void for various reasons including speaking too slowly, adding extra words, or using a tone of voice suggesting disrespect towards China.

The disqualifications came after China's parliament last November judged that lawmakers must swear allegiance to Hong Kong as part of China, and that candidates would be disqualified if they changed the wording of their oath or if they failed to take it in a sincere and solemn manner.

The ruling was considered Beijing's most direct intervention in Hong Kong's legal system since the 1997 handover of the city from Britain to China.

The disqualifications eroded the influence of the opposition pro-democracy camp that had held a slender one-third veto bloc in the legislative council.

Nearly 100 democracy activists are facing court cases in connection with their campaigning and several including student protest leader Joshua Wong have recently been jailed.

A former British colony, Hong Kong reverted to China 20 years ago under a "one country, two systems" formula that guarantees a range of freedoms not enjoyed in China, including a direct vote for half of the legislative assembly.

($1 = 7.8005 Hong Kong dollars)

(Reporting by James Pomfret; Editing by Robert Birsel)