While the COVID-19 pandemic grips the attention of leaders around the world, Hong Kong police have seized the moment to swoop on a dozen democracy activists accused of illegal assembly.
Believed to be among those detained is prominent Democratic Party founder and senior barrister Martin Lee, 81, revered by the protest movement as “the father of democracy”.
In all, nine former legislators were arrested.
Hong Kong police have yet to confirm the arrests, which media said related to marches on Aug. 18 and Oct. 1 last year – both days of large and at times violent protests across the city.
Media showed footage of police outside the house of publishing tycoon Jimmy Lai, a financial backer of the city’s pro-democracy movement.
Lai was arrested on similar charges in late February, along with veteran activists Lee Cheuk-yan and Yeung Sum. It was unclear if he was among those arrested on Saturday, while others named by media could not be contacted.
The raids mark the biggest crackdown on the pro-democracy movement since the outbreak of large and sometimes violent anti-government protests across the former British colony in June last year.
Marchers initially targeted a now-scrapped bill proposing to send suspects to mainland China for trial but protests broadened into demands for full democracy and a public investigation of the use of force by police.
Saturday’s arrests come after several months of relative calm amid a partial coronavirus lockdown but just as Chinese and city government officials launch a new push for tougher national security laws for Hong Kong.
Democratic legislator Claudia Mo, who was not among those arrested, said the government, led by Chief Executive Carrie Lam, was trying “into introduce a ring of terror in Hong Kong”.
“They are doing whatever they can to try to silence, to take down, the local opposition,” she said, pointing to upcoming legislative elections in September in which democrats hope to win back their former veto power in the city assembly.
This is the newest wave of persecution.
Targets include veteran Democrats such as Martin Lee, media tycoon Jimmy Lai, barrister Margaret Ng, and young activists such as AU Nok-hin and Figo Chan.#HongKongProtest is in abeyance, but the state steps up persecution.#大搜捕 pic.twitter.com/iV2lBUR5DO
— MOK Chit Wai John 莫哲暐 (@johncw_Mok) April 18, 2020
Authorities in Hong Kong have arrested more than 7,800 people for their involvement in the protests, including many on rioting charges that can carry jail terms of up to 10 years.
It is not clear how many of them are in custody.
Hong Kong government and security officials have recently described some of the democracy movement’s actions as being close to terrorism.
Authorities are increasingly using the threat of terrorism to justify the need for new national security laws, a requirement under the Basic Law – the mini-constitution that guarantees Hong Kong’s broad freedoms and outlines its relationship with Beijing.
Hong Kong returned to Beijing in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” formula that guarantees it broad freedoms not seen in mainland China, and a high degree of autonomy.
A previous attempt to draft a national security law for Hong Kong, known as Article 23, was met with mass protests in 2003 and abandoned.