Hong Kong’s last colonial governor Chris Patten has said that Friday’s round-up of pro-democracy figures shows that Beijing is “throttling” decency and freedom in the city.
Police arrested Jimmy Lai, the owner of pro-democracy tabloid Apple Daily, on suspicion of illegal assembly at a protest and for allegedly blackmailing a journalist in 2017. Vice-chair of the Labour Party Lee Cheuk-yan and Yeung Sum, an ex-lawmaker and former chief of the Democratic Party, were also arrested for illegal assembly.
“The arrest of three leading Hong Kong citizens, all of them known in their city and around the world as brave and respected advocates of free speech, accountable government, responsible social policy and political liberty is outrageous,” Patten told NGO Hong Kong Watch. “The Hong Kong government, doubtless once more under instruction from the Communist regime in Beijing, appears to be twisting the law to attempt to frighten the community into accepting the Communist Party’s attempts to bully Hong Kong to give up its belief in, and support for, the rule of law and the principle of ‘one country, two systems.’”
Patten, who served as the city’s last colonial leader ahead of the 1997 Handover to China, said that Beijing should not continue to turn the screws, especially when the city is battling the coronavirus: “This decision will send yet another signal to the world that the Chinese Communist Party is intent on throttling decency and freedom in Hong Kong.”
The accusations of illegal assembly relate to an anti-extradition law protest last August 31. During the Civil Human Rights Front march, which was banned by police, pro-democracy protesters and officers clashed on Hong Kong Island. Tactical officers later stormed Prince Edward MTR station, deploying pepper spray and making arrests.
Under the Public Order Ordinance, it is an offence for three or more people to act together in a disorderly manner with the intent to cause others to fear that a breach of the peace will be committed. The offence is punishable by three years in prison on summary conviction.
However, Amnesty International Hong Kong said that peaceful protests do not require authorisation. The rights NGO’s director Man Kei-tam said in a press release that the arrests were a “shameless attempt to harass and silence those in Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement.”
— Amnesty International Hong Kong (@amnestyHK) February 28, 2020
“This continued assault on freedom of expression and assembly in Hong Kong only underlines the urgent need for an independent inquiry into the heavy-handed tactics used by police against protesters since last year,” he added.
Mark Simon, a top executive at Next Media – which owns Apple Daily – called for the trio’s release on Friday: “These men are not in any way a flight risk. They need to be processed quickly and out of that police station as quickly as possible,” he said on Twitter.