Police arrested 15 high-profile pro-democracy figures on Saturday in connection with allegedly “organising and participating in unlawful assemblies” last year, according to the security bureau.

Leung Yiu-chung, Avery Ng, Lee Cheuk-yan, Albert Ho, Martin Lee, Figo Chan, Jimmy Lai, Sin Chung-kai, Cyd Ho, Au Nok-hin, Margaret Ng, Yeung Sum, Raphael Wong, Leung Kwok-hung, Richard Tsoi.

HKFP rounds up local and international reactions.

Chris Patten, Hong Kong’s last colonial governor:

“With the world’s attention focused on the appalling covid-19 epidemic, Beijing and its subservient government in Hong Kong have taken yet another step towards burying one-country, two-systems. The arrest of some of the most distinguished leaders over decades of the campaign for democracy and the rule of law in Hong Kong is an unprecedented assault on the values which have underpinned Hong Kong’s way of life for years. It is extraordinary that 14 distinguished Hong Kong citizens have been singled out by the police for taking part in demonstrations, the first of which was attended by 1.7 million of Hong Kong’s citizens. This is not the rule of law. This is what authoritarian governments do. It becomes ever more clear, week by week and day by day, that Beijing is determined to throttle Hong Kong. The world should make clear how this further undermines any residual trust that we still have in the Chinese Communist dictatorship.

This assault on Hong Kong’s freedoms comes hard on the heels of ludicrous attempts in the last few days by Beijing’s officials to argue that the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office, and the Liaison Office in Hong Kong, are not the same as the rest of the Beijing Government and can interfere in Hong Kong’s affairs without breaching the Joint Declaration and the Basic Law. This is a reckless argument which shows that Xi Jinping is determined to abandon the policies pursued by his predecessors, even at the cost of destroying Hong Kong’s way of life. It should be rejected immediately by all those governments and parliaments around the world who know the importance of safe-guarding the high degree of autonomy which is guaranteed by the Basic Law.”

Sophie Richardson, China Director at Human Rights Watch:

“Today’s arrests of pro-democracy figures in Hong Kong is another nail in the coffin of ‘one country, two systems’,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. “All this comes quickly on the heels of Beijing intervening in LegCo affairs, pro-Beijing politicians floating Article 23, and the dubious arrest of a pro-democracy local district councillor. It’s hard to know Beijing’s next precise move, but it seems Hong Kong officials will further enable abuses rather than defend Hong Kong people’s rights.”

Alice Mak of the pro-Beijing Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions:

Everyone is equal before the law in Hong Kong. Everyone must comply with law when expressing ourselves… If anyone has committed illegal acts, the police shall enforce the law. There cannot be any exceptions due to the person’s identity, status, or occupation. Lawmakers or media have no immunity to law enforcement. I don’t understand why people who violated the law claim that the arrests were politically-driven… If police is actually targeting a certain group, there will be more than 15 arrests.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind, former UK foreign secretary:

“The arrest of Martin Lee, the grandfather of Hong Kong’s democracy, barrister Margaret Ng and other prominent mainstream pro-democracy politicians in Hong Kong today is a truly appalling attack on the very heart of Hong Kong’s freedoms, the rule of law and autonomy guaranteed to the people of Hong Kong under the Joint Declaration and the Basic Law. I know some of them personally and I know these individuals are not radicals or ‘rioters’, they are highly-respected internationally-renowned establishment politicians known for their commitment to the rule of law and basic freedoms. The international community must speak out very clearly to show Beijing that these arrests are unacceptable and will be regarded as an assault not only on Hong Kong’s freedoms but on the international rules-based order itself.”

Activist Joshua Wong:

“It is expected that the phones of these [arrested] democrats will be collected as evidence. It is no surprise that despite that Agnes Chow and I have filed a judicial review already, the court may nonetheless approve search warrant applications which allow police to use hacker software to break into their phones. The threshold for incrimination in court may not result in a conviction for all of them. But just by allowing police to access all their phones to obtain their WhatsApp and Telegram conversations and photos would largely enhance the police data network.”

Baroness Nathalie Bennett and Alistair Carmichael MP of the UK’s All-Party Parliamentary Group on Hong Kong:

“Taken together, this declaration from the office of the Bejing representative in Hong Kong that it does not have to comply with the Basic Law, and the arrest of a dozen prominent, peaceful democratic campaigners, are an iron fist being deployed by the Chinese Communist Party to attack the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong.

If China is hoping that the world’s attention is diverted by the COVID-19 virus and that the international community will not react with outrage at this assault on the provisions of a binding international treaty, it is sorely mistaken. The Foreign Secretary must act immediately, and we must have an urgent statement to both Houses of Parliament.”

PEN Hong Kong:

“PEN Hong Kong is deeply concerned about the arrest of at least fourteen pro-democracy figures on Saturday morning. The unprecedented move — against prominent former legislators, barristers, and an independent media publisher — strongly suggests political retaliation was a factor.

Once again, Hong Kong’s pro-democracy figures are being intimidated and targeted by the government on trumped-up charges relating to protests last year. The arrests are likely to have a chilling effect on political and civil society, to deter others from speaking out, and will be another blow for freedom of expression in Hong Kong.

As recently as December last year, chief executive Carrie Lam denied that freedom of speech was being eroded in Hong Kong; these latest moves by her government show her words to be hollow. How can senior citizens such as Margaret Ng, Martin Lee and Albert Ho, who have never advocated anything other than constitutional and peaceful means, be considered dangers to society? PEN Hong Kong calls on the government to release all those arrested, to drop all charges and to bring to a halt this charade, which is intended to stifle the voice of civil society ahead of September’s Legislative Council elections.”

US Congressmen Ted Yoho:

“The people of #HongKong spoke loudly in favor of liberty. Govt should not be using #pandemic as an opportunity to restrict more freedoms & harass local businesses supporting the democracy movement.”

Hong Kong Security Bureau:

“The relevant arrests were made based on evidence from investigations and strictly according to the laws in force. In Hong Kong, everyone is equal before the law. No one is above it nor can anyone break it without facing consequences. If there is evidence that anyone violates the law, no matter what his/her status or background is, he/she must face justice. No one has any special privileges. The Police will handle the case in a fair, just and impartial manner in accordance with the law.”

UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office:

“We are concerned about the arrests of a number of political figures in Hong Kong, and are following these cases closely. We expect any arrests and judicial processes to be conducted in a fair and transparent manner. The right to peaceful protest is fundamental to Hong Kong’s way of life and as such is protected in both the Joint Declaration and the Basic Law. It is essential that any protests are conducted peacefully, and that the authorities avoid actions that inflame tensions. The authorities should focus on rebuilding trust through a process of meaningful political dialogue.”

The International Bar Association, Bar Council of England and Wales, International Bar Association Human Rights Institute, Bar of England & Wales Human Rights Committee and International Commission of Jurists:

“Today’s arrests demonstrate the continued assault on the freedom of expression and right to assembly in Hong Kong. Indeed, we are gravely concerned that the arrests of senior lawyers and legislators who set out to protect human rights  in a non-violent and proportionate manner, and pursuant to both rights granted in both domestic and international legal frameworks, represent an assault on the rule of law itself. The United Nations Human Rights Committee has repeatedly expressed concern that charges of ‘unlawful assembly’ against peaceful protesters in Hong Kong risks violating human rights. The arrest of a prominent media owner also sends a chilling message to those whose journalism is vital to a free society.

It is critical that authorities do not use their powers to encroach on fundamental human rights, and it is vital that legal systems continue to protect citizens from any abuse of power which may otherwise be unseen during the COVID-9 crisis in which the international community is submerged.  

We strongly urge the Hong Kong authorities to immediately release the 15 individuals arrested and drop all charges against them. Moreover, we call on the authorities to discontinue such politicised and targeted prosecutions immediately and urge the Hong Kong government instead to engage in constructive dialogue with the leaders of the pro-democracy movement to foster a climate in which their legitimate concerns over democracy and human rights can be met.”

Human Rights First’s Brian Dooley

“We know that human rights lawyers are often at the top of the list when authoritarian regimes round up peaceful dissidents and attack the rule of law… Arresting leading pro-democracy figures is a provocative, reckless move by the authorities, likely to inflame an already highly volatile situation. The Trump administration should immediately and vigorously enforce the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act.”

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo

The United States condemns the arrest of pro-democracy advocates in Hong Kong. Beijing and its representatives in Hong Kong continue to take actions inconsistent with commitments made under the Sino-British Joint Declaration that include transparency, the rule of law, and guarantees that Hong Kong will continue to “enjoy a high degree of autonomy.”

US Attorney General William P. Barr

“I condemn the latest assault on the rule of law and the liberty of the people of Hong Kong. These events show how antithetical the values of the Chinese Communist Party are to those we share in Western liberal democracies. These actions — along with its malign influence activity and industrial espionage here in the United States — demonstrate once again that the Chinese Communist Party cannot be trusted.”

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Tom is the editor-in-chief and co-founder of Hong Kong Free Press. He has a BA in Communications & New Media from Leeds University and an MA in Journalism from the University of Hong Kong. He has contributed to the BBC, Euronews, Quartz, Global Post and others.