HONG KONG (Reuters) - Suppressing Hong Kong’s democracy movement is a priority for China, even in the midst of the coronavirus crisis, a top pro-democracy leader said on Sunday, a day after police arrested him and 14 others in a surprise crackdown.
The United States and others criticised the arrest of the 15 on charges of organising and participating in anti-government protests last year, the biggest crackdown on the pro-democracy movement since the outbreak of the protests almost a year ago.
“This is all happening while we are in midst of a pandemic,” pro-democracy activist Avery Ng told Reuters by telephone.
“The world is dealing with this virus, but this signals that Beijing still sees a political crackdown in Hong Kong is a top priority.”
Those arrested included Democratic Party founder and barrister Martin Lee, 81, millionaire publishing tycoon Jimmy Lai, 71, and former lawmaker and barrister Margaret Ng, 72.
Police said those arrested were charged with organising and participating in unlawful assemblies on Aug. 18 and Oct. 1 and 20 last year. Major and often violent demonstrations broke out across the former British colony on those days.
They were due to appear in court on May 18. Police said more arrests were possible. Avery Ng and some of the others arrested were released on bail late on Saturday.
The arrests prompted criticism from the United States and Britain, which both called for Hong Kong’s rule of law to be maintained.
“The United States condemns the arrest of pro-democracy advocates in Hong Kong,” U.S Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said.
“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’,” he said.
Hong Kong returned to Beijing in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” formula that guarantees it broad freedoms not seen in mainland China, and a high degree of autonomy.
China rejected the U.S. criticism.
“It serves as another evidence of their collusion with the local troublemakers, which deserves condemnation by the entire international community,” a spokesman for Office of the Commissioner of the Chinese Foreign Ministry in Hong Kong said a statement.
In Britain, a Foreign Office representative said the government expected any arrests and court procedures to be “conducted in a fair and transparent manner”.
The right to peaceful protest was “fundamental to Hong Kong’s way of life” and authorities should avoid inflaming tension and “focus on rebuilding trust through a process of meaningful political dialogue”.
The Hong Kong government defended the arrests. The city’s Security Bureau said were carried out in line with the law.
Hong Kong’s protest campaign has gone quiet as the coronavirus threat has grown. There have been no major demonstrations in the city since Jan. 1.
But nevertheless, Ng said he believed Beijing would not compromise and more activists were likely to be arrested.
“It is a very significant political decision and shows the direction that Beijing will take in dealing with Hong Kong,” he said. “They will be very hawkish ... we can expect there will be more crackdowns.”
In another sign of the growing power of Beijing over the city, Beijing’s Liaison Office, the Chinese government’s top representative office in the city, announced on Friday that it was not bound by a law that restricts interference by other mainland Chinese bodies.
The city government backed the announcement drawing the condemnation of 22 opposition members of the city’s legislature who accused Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s government of “betraying” Hong Kong by its “capitulation”.
The International Bar Association condemned the arrests of Lee and Margaret Ng, who have been active human rights and rule of law campaigners during their careers.
It was vital that justice was applied transparently in Hong Kong, especially while the world is gripped by the coronavirus pandemic, it said.
Reporting by Scott Murdoch; additional reporting Greg Torode, Judy Hua; Editing by Robert Birsel