Hong Kong police arrested 14 pro-democracy activists in a coordinated raid on Saturday for “illegal assembly” in connection with peaceful protests last year, Hong Kong Free Press (HKFP) reported on Monday.
International leaders and human rights groups denounced the raid as China’s attempt to undermine Hong Kong’s democratic freedoms while the world remains distracted by the coronavirus pandemic.
Among those arrested were 81-year-old Democratic Party founder Martin Lee, known as the “grandfather” of the Hong Kong democracy movement, and 71-year-old Jimmy Lai, owner of the Apple Daily, Hong Kong’s largest pro-democracy media organization.
Hong Kong police superintendent Lam Wing-ho confirmed 14 people were arrested on charges of organizing and participating “unlawful assemblies” on August 18 and October 1 and 20 last year, Radio Free Asia reported on Saturday.
According to HKFP, upon his release on bail on Saturday, Lee said, “I’m proud to have the chance to walk our democracy road with Hong Kong’s excellent young people.”
In response, Hong Kong police chief Chris Tang said on Saturday night, “I don’t think there is a need to feel proud, [Lee] should feel ashamed … If people do not want to be arrested, they should not violate the law.”
Hong Kong’s de facto constitution, the Basic Law, includes the right to peaceful protest.
Hong Kong police accused those arrested Saturday of organizing an “illegal assembly” on August 18, 2019, against a now-discarded extradition bill. Roughly 1.7 million people participated in the peaceful march in August. Other charges related to pro-democracy rallies held on October 1 and 20, 2019.
In June 2019, pro-democracy protests began over a bill that would have allowed alleged criminals to be extradited to China; the bill has since been defeated. However, the protests surrounding this bill progressed into large-scale demonstrations over several months. Millions of people in Hong Kong began to demand that the Chinese Communist Party honor Hong Kong’s autonomy. Activists held strong until their peaceful gatherings were disrupted by the Chinese coronavirus pandemic.
More than half of the 14 people arrested on Saturday are over the age of 60. In addition to Martin Lee, 81, and Jimmy Lai, 71, other prominent seniors of Hong Kong’s democracy movement arrested on Saturday were: Ousted legislator Leung Kwok-hung, 64 – who was stabbed in a separate protest last week – former legislator Cyd Ho, 65; rights activists Yeung Sum, 72, Lee Cheuk-yan, 63, and Albert Ho, 68; and barrister Margaret Ng, 72.
March organizer Figo Chan, 24; former legislator Au Nok-hin, 32; and rights activists Raphael Wong, 31, Avery Ng, 43, Richard Tsoi, 52, and Sin Chung-kai, 59 were also arrested on Saturday.
Lai, Lee Cheuk-yan, and Yeung Sum were previously arrested on February 28 for “suspicion of taking part in an illegal assembly” during a demonstration against Hong Kong’s now-scrapped extradition bill on August 31, 2019. The three men were later released on bail.
“The politically motivated arrests of 14 of the most prominent democracy campaigners in Hong Kong … represents a concerted effort by the Chinese Communist Party to use the world’s focus on the COVID-19 [Chinese coronavirus] pandemic to strangle dissent in the city,” Hong Kong Watch, a U.K.-based rights group, said on Saturday.
“The United States condemns the arrest of pro-democracy advocates in Hong Kong,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a similar statement on Saturday.
“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 added, referring to the terms supporting Hong Kong’s transition from a former British colony to a special administrative region of China in 1997.
On Sunday, Hong Kong’s largest pro-democracy organization, Civil Human Rights Front, announced plans for a two-million strong protest on July 1.