The United Nations voiced alarm Thursday at the arrest of 53 prominent figures in Hong Kong on charges of “subversion”, in comments Beijing said “interfered in China’s sovereignty”.

In an operation involving 1,000 officers, Hong Kong police arrested the activists for “subversion”, a new national security crime that carries up to life in prison.

Elizabeth Throssell, Spokesperson for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). File Photo: Violaine Martin/UN Photo.

“We are deeply concerned about the arrests on Wednesday of 53 political activists, academics, former legislators, current district councillors, and lawyers in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, and we call for their immediate release,” UN rights office spokeswoman Liz Throssell said in a statement.

“Yesterday’s arrests were the latest in a series of detentions related to the exercise of fundamental freedoms, including the right to peaceful assembly, in Hong Kong,” she said.

Most of those arrested were released on bail late Thursday, many accusing authorities of criminalising dissent.

Wednesday’s arrests under a new security law were seen as the latest salvo in Beijing’s battle to stamp out dissent in the semi-autonomous city after millions hit the streets in 2019 with huge and sometimes violent democracy protests.

Benny Tai speaking to the press outside Ma On Shan Police Station after receiving bail. Tai was arrested on Wendesday over his participation in a primary election for the now-postponed Legislative Council Election. Photo: RTHK, via video screenshot.

“These latest arrests indicate that – as had been feared – the offence of subversion under the National Security Law is indeed being used to detain individuals for exercising legitimate rights to participate in political and public life,” Throssell said.

“Chaos and turbulence”

The Chinese mission to the UN in Geneva condemned her comments, with spokesman Liu Yuyin saying his country “categorically rejects the unwarranted remarks.

“These comments severely interfered in China’s sovereignty and internal affairs,” he said in a statement.

He insisted that all the 53 people arrested by Hong Kong police on Wednesday were involved in a “plot”, which if left unchecked would have plunged Hong Kong into “chaos and turbulence”.

“Regrettably, by reversing the right and wrong and distorting human rights, the OHCHR [Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights] … turns itself to accomplice of the anti-China forces and disruptors in Hong Kong,” Liu said.

“This is a grave violation of the UN Charter and outright breach of the OHCHR’s mandate as a UN body.”

In her statement, Throssell had meanwhile pointed out that the UN rights office and rights experts had repeatedly warned that offences like subversion under the new law, passed last June, were “vague and overly broad, facilitating abusive or arbitrary implementation.”

“We stress that exercise of the right to take part in the conduct of public affairs, directly and through freely chosen representatives, is a fundamental right” under international law and Hong Kong’s Basic Law.

File photo: UN.

The UN rights office, she said, called on authorities to “refrain from using the National Security Law to suppress the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association.”

“We also urge the authorities to guarantee the right to freedom of expression in the context of ongoing investigations, including by allowing journalists and news organisations to fully and freely exercise their legitimate functions.”

AFP is a global news agency delivering fast, in-depth coverage of the events shaping our world from wars and conflicts to politics, sports, entertainment and the latest breakthroughs in health, science and technology.