Barely had the opposition camp finished celebrating its better-than-expected showing in Sunday’s district council bypolls, it was hit with some bad news from the legislature authorities.
On Monday, the Legislative Council ordered four pro-democracy lawmakers who were stripped of their seats in July to return the salaries and allowances they received prior to their disqualification.
Letters were sent to the disqualified lawmakers — Nathan Law, Leung Kwok-hung, Lau Siu-lai and Edward Yiu — that they must pay back amounts ranging between HK$2.7 million and HK$3.1 million.
As the High Court ruled in July that the four should be barred from office as they didn’t take their oaths properly last October, they are deemed illegal occupants of the Legco seats for nine months and must hence repay all the money they received during that period, authorities argued.
It is the duty of the Legislative Council to recover the funds as public money was involved, Legco president Andrew Leung said, adding that the decision was in line with legal advice.
The order, not surprisingly, was met with howls of protest from opposition groups, who accused Legco’s administrative body, which is dominated by pro-Beijing figures, of political persecution.
Youth activist Law, one of the four former lawmakers who was asked to repay millions of dollars in salaries and allowances, slammed Legco’s demand as “ludicrous” and said he suspects the decision is part of a game plan to prevent him from running in upcoming by-elections.
If the political activists are unable to repay the huge amounts, they may be forced to declare bankruptcy, rendering them ineligible to contest fresh elections.
Lau and Leung have filed appeals against their disqualifications, while Law and Yiu chose not to.
By-elections to fill seats vacated by Law and Yiu, as well as those formerly held by Sixtus Baggio Leung Chung-hang and Yau Wai-ching — two Youngspiration lawmakers who, too, had been ousted earlier for improper oath-taking — are scheduled to take place in March next year.
Setting the bypolls factor aside, one must say it is quite ridiculous for Legco to order the former lawmakers to repay the money they received while performing their duties for nine months.
From October last year until their disqualification this July, Law, “Long Hair” Leung, Lau and Yiu attended Legco sessions and participated in debates and voting.
Having performed their duties, they have a right to be compensated in salary and allowances, just as any other lawmaker in the house.
But now, they are being penalized in a retroactive way, ordered to cough up the money already spent on activities such as hiring aides and other personal expenses.
The action reeks of pettiness and vindictiveness, with the Legco Commission seen bent on punishing the anti-Beijing lawmakers as much as possible.
One thing to note here is that while the lawmakers have been disqualified, the votes they cast during the nine months are still valid, a fact that Legco chief Leung himself admitted on Monday.
Looking at the whole issue, one suspects it is a political decision backed by Beijing authorities, with central authorities staying behind the scenes and intervening in the Legco business.
As some ousted members have filed appeals against their disqualifications, why did Legco not wait at least until the outcome of the appeals before seeking to recover the money from them?
From an outside perspective, it appears that Legco’s decision was short-sighted and driven more by politics, rather than the need to play by the law.
Law told reporters on Monday that the demand for repayment is absurd, given that he and the three other ousted lawmakers had faithfully served the public for nine months.
An order now to repay the past remuneration amounts to a cruel political joke on the pro-democracy activists, who were backed by tens of thousands of votes in the 2016 election.
“Those being asked for the repayment, including myself, would definitely be bankrupt,” Law said, adding that “this means the government is actually blocking me from running” in coming bypolls.
Also, Law remarked that Legco chief Leung should shoulder part of the blame.
If Leung had decided not to recognize their oaths at the very start, the newly-elected members wouldn’t have got a chance to perform their lawmaker duties, and things wouldn’t have come to such a pass.
It was Leung’s decision to allow them to take their oath again and formally become lawmakers. Despite a law interpretation by the National People’s Congress in Beijing, which set the standard for oath-taking for all public officers, Leung can’t escape responsibility for the chaos last October.
As such, Leung owes the lawmakers and the public an apology for a wrong political judgment.
If the four lawmakers are forced to return their salaries, Leung should also make some amends so as to take responsibility for a wrong decision he had made.
Because “he was the one who passed our oath-taking and also granted us the right to act as [legislators], so… he shall be the one to bear the responsibility instead of the four of us,” Law said on Monday, according to RTHK.
Beijing is using all kinds of means to bar the opposition activists from running in elections again, said Law.
While debate rages over the clawback of salaries of the lawmakers, the controversy threatens to spark another round of legal wrangling between the government and the pan-democrats.
As for the Legco, given the domination of establishment figures in the house as well as its various panels, concerns will grow that it has become a rubber stamp, implementing whatever orders flow from Beijing.
With the Communist regime advocating zero-tolerance against those who it sees as crossing the line, expect its proxies here to step up their bizarre games and strong-arm tactics.
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