The United States condemned the arrests of at least 14 veteran pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong on charges of joining massive anti-government protests last year, saying the police action jeopardizes the high degree of autonomy guaranteed to the southern Chinese city.
Among those arrested Saturday were 81-year-old activist and former lawmaker Martin Lee and democracy advocates Albert Ho, Lee Cheuk-yan, and Au Nok-hin. Police also arrested media tycoon Jimmy Lai, who founded the local newspaper Apple Daily.
The sweeping crackdown amid the COVID-19 pandemic is based on charges of unlawful assembly stemming from huge rallies against proposed extradition legislation that exposed deep divisions between democracy-minded Hong Kongers and the Communist Party-ruled central government in Beijing.
The bill — which would have allowed the residents of the semi-autonomous Chinese territory to be sent to mainland to stand trial — has been withdrawn, but the protests continued for more than seven months, centered around demands for voting rights and an independent inquiry into police conduct.
While the protests began peacefully, they increasingly descended into violence after demonstrators became frustrated with the government’s response. They feel that Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam has ignored their demands and used the police to suppress them.
Protests have largely gone on hold amid the COVID-19 outbreak, due to fears that large gatherings could cause a spike in infections. But analysts warn the tensions underlying the movement have not faded, and that the new wave of arrests could incentivize a return to the streets.
The recent arrests were just part of what critics see as a broader attempt to crack down on dissent and freedoms in Hong Kong while the world is distracted by the coronavirus pandemic. The China Liaison Office in Hong Kong has also denounced opposition lawmakers, suggesting they could be in violations of their oaths for “malicious filibustering.” In a related move, the China Liaison Office also proclaimed that it was not bound by an article of the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, that prevents departments of the central government in Beijing from interfering in Hong Kong’s internal affairs.
The Hong Kong government has denied that the recent arrests were part of any broader agenda, saying in a statement that the arrests were linked to “organizing and participating in unlawful assemblies.”
“The HKSAR [Hong Kong Special Administrative Region] Government always respects and protects human rights and freedoms. However, these rights are not absolute,” the statement said.
The cases would be handled “in a fair, just and impartial manner,” it added. “…The rule of law is a core value in Hong Kong. Any unfair and unfounded allegation made with a view to undermining and discrediting our independent criminal justice system is vehemently refuted.”
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in a statement condemned the arrests.
“Beijing and its representatives in Hong Kong continue to take actions inconsistent with commitments made under the Sino-British Joint Declaration that include transparency, the rule of law, and guarantees that Hong Kong will continue to ‘enjoy a high degree of autonomy,’“ Pompeo said. He was referring to the 1997 handover of the former British colony to China, which promised the city would enjoy political freedoms not afforded mainland China.
Britain’s Foreign Office also criticized the arrests, saying “the right to peaceful protest is fundamental to Hong Kong’s way of life and as such is protected in both the Joint Declaration and the Basic Law.”
Beijing has accused the United States and other Western countries of instigating the protests and insists any political moves in Hong Kong are China’s internal affairs.
The Office of the Commissioner of the Chinese Foreign Ministry in Hong Kong said police were enforcing the law against those suspected of organizing and participating in unauthorized assemblies, and foreign countries have no right to interfere, China’s official Xinhua News Agency reported.
“It is completely wrong that the U.K. Foreign Office spokesperson has distorted the truth by painting unauthorized assemblies as ‘peaceful protests,’ in a bid to whitewash, condone and exonerate the anti-China troublemakers in Hong Kong,” the statement said.
Lai, Lee Cheuk-yan, and Yeung Sum — a former lawmaker from the Democratic Party who was also arrested — were charged in February over their involvement in a rally on August 31 last year.
The Hong Kong authorities had denied permission for most of the rallies and police increasingly used tear gas and pepper spray against demonstrators, arresting hundreds.
The League of Social Democrats wrote in a Facebook post on Saturday that its leaders were among those arrested, including chairman Raphael Wong. They were accused of participating in two unauthorized protests on August 18 and October 1 last year.
By Zen Soo for The Associated Press with additional reporting by The Diplomat.