Hong Kong police arrested the owner of anti-communist newspaper Apple Daily, Jimmy Lai, along with pro-democracy Labour Party vice-chair Lee Cheuk-yan and former lawmaker Yeung Sum, on Friday morning for participating in protests in August.
The arrests happened weeks after the last major anti-Chinese protests. While the movement continues to enjoy widespread support in Hong Kong, locals have abstained from large gatherings to protect from the ongoing Chinese coronavirus outbreak. About two weeks before China publicly alerted the world to the discovery of a new virus in central Wuhan city, Hong Kong authorities greatly expanded the city’s power to isolate individuals suspected of carrying the disease, a move some expressed concern would lead to the isolation and quarantine of protesters to silence them.
No cases have yet been made public of Hong Kong protest leaders being quarantined over a potential coronavirus infection without evidence, but Hong Kong police have used the diversion of attention from the protests to the outbreak to silence Lai, Lee, and Yeung.
According to the Hong Kong Free Press (HKFP), the three men were arrested in their homes on Friday morning for participating in a protest in late August that police retracted permission for – formally, for “unlawful assembly.” Following the declaration against the protest at the time, police proceeded to attack peaceful protesters, spraying tear gas and beating protesters with batons. The newspaper notes that those arrested may face up to three years in prison.
As the broadcaster RTHK explained of the August 31 rally the men were arrested for:
The police had banned a march planned by the Civil Human Rights Front on August 31, but there were calls on social media for people to instead join a “Pray for Sinners” rally, “go sightseeing”, or to “shop and dine” on Hong Kong Island. Thousands of people eventually defied the ban, occupying major roads from Causeway Bay to Sheung Wan.
“These arrests show that their political activities are illegal and will eventually face legal trials. There is no justification for violating the law,” a Chinese “expert” told the propaganda outlet. The arrests that occurred were preliminary and did not result in any sentencing, so they do not on their own prove any wrongdoing, only that police have met their own standard of probable cause to charge the individuals in question.
The Times condemned Apple Daily for its open support of the pro-democracy protest movement. Lai himself often made appearances during the protests that began in 2019, and faced leftist violence for his support of the 2014 Umbrella Movement.
“Apple Daily is known for its active stance in supporting violent Hong Kong protesters and it is seen as an accomplice to the rioters,” the Global Times claimed, falsely referring to peaceful pro-democracy protesters as “rioters.” “The newspaper covered the months-long anti-government protests in a biased manner by focusing on law enforcement by police and depicting it as ‘police brutality’ while ignoring the fact that protesters constantly provoked police first.”
The propaganda newspaper also accused Lai of being a U.S. agent and having close relationships with Vice President Mike Pence and former National Security Advisor John Bolton.
The Times concluded that arresting Lai could “end the chaos” in Hong Kong, by which it meant stifle the pro-democracy movement and allow Beijing to continue usurping power from the nominally autonomous region.
The three men have been released on bail. Lai did not speak to reporters, Apple Daily itself noted, and paid the highest bail, 5,000 yuan (about $715).
Human rights advocates have condemned the arrests.
“It continues the pattern of the authorities using politically motivated charges to suppress opposition voices,” Amnesty International Hong Kong director Tam Man-kei said on Friday, calling the arrests “a shameless attempt to harass and silence those in Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement.”
Lai, a longtime outspoken critic of communism, has for years faced state violence for building up Apple Daily as a voice for the pro-democracy movement. In September, two unidentified men firebombed his house in response to his support for and presence in ongoing protests. A similar attack occurred in 2015, also in response to Lai supporting the protest movement. A year before that, a man attacked Lai by hurling animal entrails at him in public.
Some months after the firebombing in 2019, Lai appeared in a Chinese communist video game called “Fight the Traitors Together,” in which players could violently assault famous supporters of democracy in Hong Kong. Alongside Lai in the game appeared Demosisto Secretary-General Joshua Wong, who was also arrested last year on similar charges of “unlawful assembly.”
In addition to arresting the three men on Friday, Hong Kong police told reporters they are seeking to expand their force by over 2,500 officers to better repress public support for democracy. Police superintendent Lau Siu-pong published a video in which he announced that police would soon buy more “anti-riot” supplies like water cannons and armored vehicles.