Four people from a non-profit group providing financial aid to Hong Kong protesters have been granted bail on Thursday night, hours after they were arrested on suspicion of money laundering.
On Thursday, police arrested three men and one woman – aged between 17 and 50 – from Spark Alliance for alleged money laundering offences. Officers seized HK$130,000 in cash and 3,300 supermarket coupons worth HK$165,000 from their homes, and froze around HK$70 million in funds as well as insurance products.
Spark Alliance is one of the largest crowd-funded initiatives supporting pro-democracy protesters, with the money going towards living subsidies as well as legal and medical costs. The group is estimated to have collected about HK$80 million in the past six months, according to police.
The non-profit responded on Thursday evening, saying: “The police have attempted to paint the operation of this platform with their erroneous remarks as malicious usage of funds such as money laundering. This is a campaign to smear Spark Alliance and other support channels. We condemn such slander.”
Spark Alliance was formed in 2016 after the Mong Kok unrest to support arrested protesters. It has used a company called “The Prime Management Service Ltd,” founded in July 2011, to receive funds from the public. Tony Wong, one of the arrestees, has been identified as the sole director of the company.
Spark Alliance announced on Facebook last month that HSBC had closed its account. HSBC has cited account activities that failed to match the business purposes stated by the client as the reason behind its decision.
Wong formed another company “SW Brands Management Service Ltd,” four days after HSBC closed the account.
Online commentators have accused HSBC of reporting Spark Alliance’s account discrepancies to the police.
Office workers gathered outside HSBC’s headquarters in Central at lunchtime on Friday, chanting protest slogans, including: “Support Spark Alliance, protect the protesters! Disband the police force now!”.
HSBC responded saying that the account closure was not related to the city’s ongoing pro-democracy protests, now in their seventh month: “We understand there are questions relating to the closure of an account. We never take the decision to close an account lightly. We’d like to reiterate that our decision to close the account in November 2019 is unrelated to the current [Hong Kong] situation,” the statement read.
“Whenever we spot activity differing from the stated purpose of the account or we identify unusual transactions, we will work with our customers to obtain the right information. Over the last few months in working with the customer these requirements were not met and therefore we closed their account.”
Barrister Margaret Ng, a trustee of the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund which also provides support to protesters, said on a Commercial Radio programme on Friday that she was shocked by police accusations of money laundering against Spark Alliance.
Ng accused the force of attempting to suppress protester-friendly groups. She said the police had failed to explain how the cash transactions and supermarket coupons were related to money laundering. “We all know that donations from marches were of course made in cash,” she added.
She said the arrests would make the public angrier: “The police froze a fund, so another fund will pop up because these groups are self-organised by civilians.”
Ng added that the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund keeps records of its finances in accordance with its accountant’s advice, and regularly makes its finances public.
Pro-Beijing lawmaker Holden Chow said the police and the Department of Justice should conduct a thorough investigation into Spark Alliance’s use of funds.
“[Police need to investigate] whether the funds were used to support illegal riots or explosive or harmful weapons,” he said.
Chow said Spark Alliance may have been involved in theft or fraud by investing in personal insurance products.
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