Hong Kong police have arrested at least 39 pro-democracy politicians in one of the biggest purges of the city’s opposition since Beijing imposed a tough new national security law on the city last year.
Police detained dozens of activists as well as moderate former democratic lawmakers and for the first time accused the city’s most prominent pro-democracy activist, Joshua Wong, of violating the national security law. Crimes under the law are punishable with up to life imprisonment.
The arrests targeted activists and opposition politicians involved in organising primary run-offs last year to determine the candidates to run for the Legislative Council, Hong Kong’s de facto parliament. The city’s government subsequently postponed the election, which was scheduled for last year, citing the coronavirus pandemic.
The sweeping action on Wednesday marks a severe escalation of a crackdown that began with the imposition of the national security law in June, which critics say threatens freedoms promised to the semi-autonomous territory on its handover to China by the UK in 1997.
Beijing introduced the law in response to last year’s anti-government protests, which were sparked by opposition to an extradition law but expanded into a pro-democracy movement marked by violent clashes between police and protesters.
On Tuesday, police searched the home of Mr Wong, who is in prison for other offences, and accused him of contravening the security law, according to the activist’s official social media pages.
Former lawmakers James To, Andrew Wan, Lam Cheuk-ting, Wu Chi-wai, and Roy Kwong were among those arrested on Wednesday morning.
The pro-democracy lawmakers had resigned from the Legislative Council last year as part of a mass boycott of the body by opposition politicians after the government disqualified four of their colleagues. The resignations left the de facto rubber-stamp parliament effectively devoid of opposition.
Hong Kong’s opposition Democratic Party said police had linked the arrests to the primary run-offs and accused its members of violating the national security law, according to the party’s Facebook page.
The round-up also follows concern that political pressure from Beijing is threatening the independence of Hong Kong’s globally respected judicial system, considered essential to its role as an international financial hub.
On Monday, Geoffrey Ma, the outgoing chief justice, indirectly raised concerns about growing calls from pro-China groups in the city for changes to the legal system.
Pro-Beijing groups have challenged court decisions in which defendants facing charges related to the 2019 protests were acquitted or handed what government supporters considered lenient sentences.
These groups have called for a “sentencing council” to increase supervision of judges’ decisions. The UK has a sentencing council made up of judges and police as well as social workers and academics who provide guidelines to the judiciary.
“If there is any reform required, give us the details and we will consider it,” Justice Ma said on Wednesday ahead of his retirement this week. “But it’s not particularly satisfactory [if] there is a call for reform simply on the basis of a result one doesn’t like.”
Justice Ma insisted, however, that he had not faced pressure from Beijing in deciding cases. “Do I have any direct interference with what I do or what the courts do from the government or from Beijing? The answer is no,” he said.