This article has been updated.
Hong Kong police arrested 53 pro-democracy activists, former lawmakers, and politicians on Jan. 6, in local authorities’ largest clampdown on the city’s opposition camp since a draconian security law went into effect.
They were apprehended for their roles in a primary election held by the pan-democracy camp ahead of the Legislative Council (LegCo) elections in September last year.
The arrestees are mostly male and aged 23 to 64, police said. Six were placed in custody under suspicion of organizing and planning criminal activities to subvert state power, while the other 47 were arrested for involvement in such activities.
Both are punishable offenses under the new national security law imposed by Beijing, which penalizes vaguely-defined crimes such as subversion and secession with a maximum of life imprisonment.
Police have also frozen HKD1.6 million ($206,364) worth of assets related to the case.
The primary elections, organized by local political association Power for Democracy, were held on July 11 and July 12, with the aim of selecting the most promising pro-democracy candidates to run for legislative office. The pan-democracy camp was hoping to win a majority or more than 35 seats in LegCo.
Over 600,000 Hongkongers cast their ballots in the primary vote.
The LegCo elections, initially scheduled for Sept. 6, 2020, were eventually postponed by Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam, at that time citing the local surge in infection cases caused by the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus, the novel coronavirus that causes the disease COVID-19.
Among the arrested were former lawmakers of the local Civic Party and Democratic Party, including Wu Chi-wai, James To, Andrew Wan, Lam Cheuk-ting, and Alvin Yeung.
Other former lawmakers arrested included Gary Fan, Eddie Chu, Au Nok-hin, and Leung Kwok-hung.
Well-known local activist Jimmy Sham, who is currently one of the vice-chairs of local party League of the Social Democrats and the former CHRF convener, was also arrested.
Sham ran in the primary vote in the geographical constituency Kowloon West. Other primary candidates arrested on Wednesday included Lester Chum, Owen Chow, Tiffany Yuen, and Gwyneth Ho.
Former Hong Kong University law professor Benny Tai, who was also an organizer of the primary elections, was also arrested.
Human rights lawyer John Clancey, an American citizen, was also apprehended. The police also raided his law firm, Ho, Tse, Wai & Partners. Clancey chairs the Asian Human Rights Commission and is also a board member of the local China Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group.
The lawyer, with a cane in hand, said Hongkongers need to “continue to work for democracy and human rights in Hong Kong” as he walked toward the police car.
Steve Li Kwai-Wah, senior superintendent of the Hong Kong police’s national security unit, told reporters at a press conference Wednesday night that the police had deployed around 1,000 officers, including national security agents, and raided 72 venues total in relation to the primary election.
Li accused the arrestees of plotting to “paralyze” the government and disrupt its normal operations.
He clarified that the police won’t open investigations into people who voted in the primary, but later added that they may make more arrests related to the case in the future.
The police also visited offices of four local media: Next Digital and Apple Daily—both were founded by Hong Kong tycoon Jimmy Lai; Stand News; and Hong Kong In-media, and served search warrants demanding documents related to primary candidates. The four outlets have published reports critical of Hong Kong authorities’ suppression of the pro-democracy protests last year.
Li claimed that the police action does not affect press freedom and that they only want to obtain materials from “witnesses” to facilitate the police investigation. Lai, a 73-year-old outspoken activist, has recently been detained, on allegations of violating the national security law by colluding with foreign forces.
Civil Human Rights Front, a pro-democracy organization where Sham served as a convenor, issued a statement condemning the “reckless accusations and arrests.”
“The Primary Election is merely a legal expression of the will of the public by the definition of the Basic Law,” it said. “The freedom of speech, the freedom of the press, the right to elect, and to be elected that we once were proud of are being taken away from us.”
In the United States, several lawmakers took to Twitter to voice their concerns.
“I stand with the freedom fighters in Hong Kong as Communist China continues to attack democracy,” wrote Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo.).
“This is Communist China’s draconian national security law in action, and it’s just the beginning,” said Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.).
British NGO Hong Kong Watch condemned Beijing via Twitter, writing, “Beijing is once again undermining Hong Kong’s democracy & breaching its obligations under the Sino-British Joint Declaration.”
“The international community must respond with Magnitsky sanctions and other punitive measures demonstrating that an attack on democracy has consequences,” the NGO added.
Washington-based advocacy group HKDC also took to its Twitter account to condemn the mass arrests.
“Make no mistake—this is what authoritarian regimes and dictators do,” HKDC wrote.
Nathan Law, a Hong Kong activist currently in exile in London, called on European officials to take action.
“In response to Hong Kong’s political crackdown, I urge the European Parliament to halt the EU-China investment deal and EU to sanction China&HK officials who are responsible to the arrests,” he wrote on Twitter.
The business investment deal was inked on Dec. 30, 2020, amid concerns about human rights abuses in China.