HONG KONG: Prominent Hong Kong democracy activists, including three lawmakers, were arrested on Friday in a protest crackdown.
The sweep comes after a major rally planned for Saturday was banned by police on security grounds, and then called off by the organisers.
The latest protest had been due to mark the fifth anniversary of Beijing’s rejection of a call for universal suffrage in the semi-autonomous city, sparking the 79-day Umbrella Movement in 2014.
Hong Kong has been locked in three months of political crisis, with increasingly violent clashes between police and protesters that have prompted an escalating intimidation campaign from China.
Two of the Umbrella Movement’s leaders, Joshua Wong and Agnes Chow — both still well-regarded among the city’s youth — were arrested in dawn swoops on Friday and appeared in court accused of “inciting others to take part in unauthorised assembly” among other charges.
After being released on bail they spoke outside the court. Wong vowed to “continue our fight”, and railed against the “chilling effect” of the arrests on opponents of Hong Kong’s Beijing-backed government.
Authorities are “trying to create white terror” to scare people away from participating in the social and democratic movement, he said — deploying a term used for China’s efforts to fragment and harass the protesters.
The European Union’s diplomatic chief Federica Mogherini on Friday said the developments were “extremely worrying”.
The day saw rolling arrests of leading pro-democracy voices, including three members of the city’s parliament — Cheng Chung-tai, who advocates greater political autonomy for Hong Kong, Au Nok-hin and Jeremy Tam.
Cheng’s arrest was announced by his Civic Passion party, while police confirmed a 35-year-old man surnamed Cheng had been held over “conspiracy to cause criminal damage” linked to the storming of the city’s parliament in July.
Police confirmed on Friday night arrests of lawmakers Au and Tam for their roles in “obstructing” officers when riot police cleared protesters from the streets of the densely populated Mong Kok neighbourhood on July 7-8. Au is also accused of assaulting a police officer.
Tam, a long-term pilot for Cathay Pacific, announced on social media last week that after 20 years he was resigning from the airline, which has been accused of bowing to pressure from Beijing.
More than 900 people have been arrested in connection with protests since June. But that has failed to snuff out a leaderless movement, which believes that freedoms in the city, unique within China, are being eviscerated by Beijing.
Pro-democracy campaigner Rick Hui — a district councillor — and former student leader Althea Suen were also arrested separately on Friday, while vocal independence campaigner Andy Chan was detained at Hong Kong’s airport.
Amnesty International decried the “ludicrous dawn swoops”, describing them as “scare tactics straight out of Beijing’s playbook”.
Police spokesperson John Tse denied the slew of arrests were timed specifically to de-fang the weekend’s protests as “totally false”.
Hong Kong’s crisis-hit government has refused to back down over the protests, which have by turns seen millions march, close the airport and leave city streets strewn with bricks and shrouded in tear gas.
What started as a pushback against a bill allowing extraditions to mainland China quickly morphed into wider calls for democracy and police accountability.
Published in Dawn, August 31st, 2019