Hong Kong police on Saturday carried out a large-scale operation against high-level democratic activists, arresting 15 activists accused of massive protests that rocked the Asian financial center last year.
Among those targeted was media tycoon Jimmy Lai, 72, founder of the anti-establishment newspaper Apple Daily, who was arrested at his home.
The group also included former legislators Martin Lee, Margaret Ng, Albert Ho, Leung Kwok-hung, Au Nok-hin and current lawmaker Leung Yiu-chung.
They are accused of having organized and participated in illegal rallies in August and October, according to the police.
Five were arrested on suspicion of announcing unauthorized public meetings in September and October.
“Those arrested have been charged or will be charged with related crimes,” said Superintendent Lam Wing-ho.
All 15 are scheduled to appear in court in mid-May.
Media boss Lai had already been arrested in February for participating in another rally in August, banned by the police for security reasons.
“Finally, I became an accused. How do I feel? I’m very relieved,” Lee told media after being released on bail.
“For so many years, so many months, so many good young people have been arrested and charged, while I have not been arrested. I am sorry,” said the 81-year-old lawyer and founding president of first political party in the city.
He added that he did not regret his actions and that he was proud to walk with the young people of Hong Kong in their struggle for democracy – remarks city police chief Chris Tang, who left him “very worried and surprised”.
“As a veteran of the legal profession … he continues to inspire young people to break the law. I don’t think he should feel proud, he should be ashamed,” said Tang.
The semi-autonomous city was shaken by widespread and sometimes violent street protests in 2019, sparked by a now-abandoned proposal to allow extraditions to the authoritarian mainland and its opaque judicial system.
“Today’s arrests of pro-democracy figures in Hong Kong are another nail in the coffin of” one country, two systems, “said Human Rights Watch director Sophie Richardson, referring to the principle which guarantees freedoms in the city that we do not see on the Chinese mainland.
“It is difficult to know what Beijing’s next specific decision will be, but it seems that Hong Kong officials will allow abuses rather than defend the rights of the people of Hong Kong.”
Last year, the rallies turned into a larger movement calling for greater freedoms in the most concerted challenge to domination of Beijing since the former British colony returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1997.
Protests and clashes with the police have since stopped, partly because of exhaustion and arrests, but also because of the emergence of the deadly coronavirus.
Chinese leaders have refused requests for protesters, which include completely free elections in the city, an investigation into allegations of police misconduct during the protests and an amnesty for more than 7,000 people arrested during the movement – including many are minors of 20.
Pro-democracy MP Claudia Mo said Saturday that the local government “is working to establish a reign of terror”.
“They are doing everything they can to try to silence, to defeat the local opposition, but then we are united,” she said. “It is so obvious that they choreograph all their actions.”
Chris Patten, Hong Kong’s last colonial governor before the 1997 transfer, said the arrests were another step toward burying the city’s autonomy.
“It is not the rule of law. It is what authoritarian governments do,” he said. “It is becoming increasingly clear, week by week and day by day, that Beijing is determined to strangle Hong Kong.”