Hong Kong police arrested three veteran pro-democracy figures yesterday for taking part in an unauthorised antigovernment march last year.
Jimmy Lai, the 71-year-old founder of Next Media, which publishes the popular anti-government Apple Daily newspaper, was arrested yesterday morning for taking part in a march banned by police on 31 August.
Lai, a self-made millionaire who is an outspoken critic of Beijing and a major financial patron of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement, was picked up by police at his house.
Lee Cheuk-yan, 63, the vice-chairman of the Labour party, was also taken away by police from his home early yesterday for taking part in the same march. The party condemned the arrest as a suppression of Hong Kong people’s right to peaceful protest.
Both men were released on bail yesterday afternoon. Lai declined to speak to reporters waiting outside the police station while Lee accused the government of political persecution. Lee said the police demanded he hand over his mobile phone and worried they would use data on it against him. Police also wanted the clothes he wore and a bag he carried on 31 August.
“The government wants to take revenge and settle accounts [with us] – they’re using intimidation to deal with Hong Kongers,” said Lee.
Yeung Sum, 72, a former chairman of the Democratic party, was also taken away by police yesterday morning.
The men were arrested on suspicion of taking part in an illegal assembly, reports said. Observers say their arrests indicate that the Hong Kong government is determined to take revenge on influential pro-democracy figures who they see as having a leading role in the months-long anti-government movement, the most severe political crisis for the Beijing and Hong Kong authorities in decades.
Hundreds of thousands of protesters defied a police ban on a march on 31 August organised by Civil Human Rights Front, a group which has organised mass protests attracting up to 2 million people during the political crisis sparked by a controversial extradition law last June. During the march, the crowds occupied major thoroughfares and protesters besieged the government’s headquarters and clashed with riot police.
Protests and clashes later spread across the harbour to Kowloon and a group of riot police officers stormed a train at the underground Prince Edward station, attacking demonstrators and commuters with batons and pepper spray. It gave rise to rumours of covered-up deaths, and protesters set up shrines outside for months and still hold small-scale protests monthly to commemorate the attack.
A pro-democracy lawmaker, Andrew Wan, told reporters the march was not organised by the three men and their arrests would have “a chilling effect” in society.
A Hong Kong police spokesman confirmed the arrests yesterday. Without giving their names, he said the three had been charged for participating in an unauthorised assembly on 31 August last year and would be required to appear in court in May. He said Lai was also charged with criminal intimidation for an offence on 4 June 2017, when he reportedly swore at a journalist at the pro-Beijing Oriental Daily.
The arrests come after a period of relative calm in the Asian financial hub following months of intense protests.
Authorities in Hong Kong have arrested more than 7,000 people for their involvement in the protests, many on charges of rioting, which can carry jail terms of up to 10 years. It is unclear how many are still in custody.
Public anger has grown over the months as a result of perceptions of China tightening its grip over the city. Beijing denies meddling and blames the west for fomenting unrest.
Lai was previously arrested in 2014 for refusing to leave a key pro-democracy protest site in the centre of the city. Following his arrest he resigned as editor-in-chief of Apple Daily. He has also come under scrutiny from Hong Kong’s anti-graft agency, which raided his home in 2014.
Albert Ho, a solicitor and high-profile pro-democracy politician in Hong Kong, said the arrests were part of a plan by the city’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, “to try to exert pressure in Hong Kong to repress the opposition to silence”.