By Venus Wu and Pak Yiu
HONG KONG (Reuters) - Hong Kong's High Court on Tuesday ruled in favour of barring a pro-independence activist from standing in an election, saying it is "fundamental" for lawmakers to accept the city as an inalienable part of China.
The former British colony, which returned to China in 1997, does not enjoy full democracy, but an election that fills half of the 70-seat legislature once every four years is considered the most open under a "one country, two systems" arrangement under which the city is ruled.
However alarm bells were raised over the rights and freedoms enshrined in that arrangement when six legislators elected in 2016 and at least nine other candidates from the opposition were disqualified, as Beijing tightens its grip in the aftermath of the 2014 pro-democracy "Umbrella Movement" protests.
Tuesday's case concerned pro-independence advocate Andy Chan, who had signed a declaration saying he would uphold the city's mini-constitution, the Basic Law, when he applied to run for office in 2016.
But the government's returning officer chose not to believe him and invalidated his nomination.
Judge Thomas Au on Tuesday ruled he did not accept that Chan would truly uphold the Basic Law, at times referencing a controversial yet binding legal interpretation issued by Beijing's parliament which stated this should be a precondition for standing for election.
"In any reasonable objective view, advocating the independence of Hong Kong with the abolition of the Basic Law objectively must at the least prima facie be the very antithesis of an intention to 'uphold' the Basic Law," Au wrote.
"The upholding of the Basic Law and the acceptance of the fact that (Hong Kong) is an inalienable part of the People's Republic of China... is fundamental to the person being allowed to assume office."
The 104-page judgment sets a precedent for similar appeals, including one already filed by another pro-independence advocate, Edward Leung.
A government returning officer recently barred 21-year-old activist Agnes Chow from running in a March by-election triggered by the earlier disqualifications. This prompted a strongly-worded criticism from the European Union, saying it "risks diminishing Hong Kong's international reputation as a free and open society".
Chan said he would consider an appeal.
"Electoral freedom is constantly tightening, and there is no way you can call this an election," he said. "It should be called a selection."
(Reporting by Venus Wu and Pak Yiu; Editing by Nick Macfie)