Police in Hong Kong on Thursday arrested nine pro-democracy activists in what rights groups and pan-democratic politicians said is an ongoing purge of dissenting voices in the former British colony.
The activists, who include the chairman of a social democratic party and two members of a new political party formed by student leaders of the 2014 democracy movement, were arrested on charges of "unlawful assembly" and other public order offenses in relation to a Nov. 6 anti-Beijing demonstration.
"On that day, I saw that the police were hitting demonstrators with batons, so I went to get in their way," League of Social Democrats (LSD) member Dickson Chau told RFA following his arrest.
"But I have no idea right now which of my actions would have led the police to bring these charges against me," he said.
Derek Lam, of the political party Demosisto formed by former leaders of the 2014 Occupy Central movement, said he believes the move is part of a political "clean-up" operation ahead of the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong's handover to China on July 1.
"The current administration is doing a clean-up operation before the new administration [of chief executive-elect Carrie Lam] takes office on July 1," Lam told RFA. "They are detaining a number of people who have been fairly active protesters in recent years, so as to be able to place more restrictions on them, for example, relating to bail."
"This will make it harder for democrats and progressives to engage in any protests around July 1," Lam said. "As for the localists and the pro-independence activists, you can expect a much stronger operation against them in the weeks to come."
Traditional freedoms eroded
Growing talk of independence has coincided with the erosion of Hong Kong's traditional freedoms of speech, publication, and judicial independence in recent years and a stalled timetable for full democracy.
Some 40 percent of young people support the idea, compared with around 70 percent who oppose it across all age groups, according to recent opinion polls.
According to London-based rights group Amnesty International, the move is the latest in a string of actions taken by the city's government to "punish dissenting voices," especially those who disagree with the political future mapped out for Hong Kong by Beijing.
"The repeated use of vague charges against prominent figures in Hong Kong's pro-democracy movement reeks of an orchestrated and retaliatory campaign by the authorities to punish those that advocate for democracy in Hong Kong," Amnesty International's Hong Kong director Mabel Au said in statement.
"The Hong Kong government should be protecting freedom of expression and peaceful assembly but instead it appears intent on intimidating people who are challenging the authorities," Au said.
"Arrests and prosecutions aimed at shutting down participation in peaceful protests must stop," she said.
LSD chairman Avery Ng, fellow LSD member Chan Man-wai, and Sammy Ip and Lo Tak-cheong of Student Fight For Democracy were among those arrested, and then released on bail, on Thursday.
Demosisto's Ivan Lam, Chow Shu-wing of the activist group People Power, and former Lingnan University student union leader Cheng Pui-lun were also arrested.
The arrests came a day after police arrested two pro-independence former lawmakers-elect, Yau Wai-ching and Sixtus Leung, for "unlawful assembly" after the courts disqualified them from office for changing the wording of their oaths of allegiance on Oct. 12.
Their charges were related to scuffles during their unsuccessful attempts to re-enter the city's Legislative Council (LegCo) to retake their oaths.
All nine activists arrested Thursday had taken part in a demonstration outside Beijing’s Liaison Office on the night of Nov. 6 in protest over Beijing's intervention in the row over Yau and Leung's oaths.
Avery Ng said he was charged with "incitement to public disorder," while Demosisto's Derek Lam said he faces the same charge, accusing the government of "rounding up" potential protest leaders ahead of an official celebration marking the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong's handover to Chinese rule on July 1.
Other activists face charges of "unlawful assembly" or "obstructing a police officer in the course of duty," although the demonstration was reportedly peaceful.
LSD LegCo member and veteran social activist Leung Kwok-hung said the move was part of a campaign of "political persecution" ahead of the anniversary.
"The president of the PRC, Mr Xi Jinping, surely will pay a visit during the 20th anniversary of the handover," Leung told reporters.
"I think this is typical political persecution. [These are] political prosecutions in order to threaten the Hong Kong people who are willing to come out and voice the demand of universal suffrage."
'A political prosecution'
Demosisto lawmaker and former Occupy Central student leader Nathan Law agreed.
"[This] is a political prosecution," he said. "The reason why we had to have a rally is that the Beijing government is brutally interfering in Hong Kong's internal issues by interpreting the Basic Law."
"It is impossible to have reconciliation during this kind of political suppression ... We will continue to fight for democracy," he said.
Pro-Beijing lawmaker Holden Chow dismissed accusations of a politically motivated "purge."
"The opposition camp loves to say it's political persecution whenever charges are brought against its members, but I don't agree," Chow said.
"I think that the justice department brings charges in a professional and independent manner ... and that [these allegations] are unfair."
Democratic Party lawmaker James To said he also believes there is a strong likelihood of a visit from President Xi on July 1.
"I think the Chinese leadership is hoping to create a chilling effect [ahead of a visit by Xi]," To said. "They are hoping to achieve a huge reduction in the number and size of opposition protests, especially the more vociferous ones."
"I don't believe that the police have only now finished up what they had to do. I think there is some high-level official involvement here, based on my knowledge of police work," he said.
Approach could backfire
And Maya Wang, China researcher for the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) in Hong Kong, said the "heavy-handed" approach of the authorities could backfire, pointing to the 2014 Occupy movement.
"It is ironic that, as the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong's handover to China approaches, the territory's autonomy looks increasingly fragile," Wang was quoted by Hong Kong government broadcaster RTHK as saying.
Hong Kong has hit a new low in global press freedom rankings, amid growing concern over Beijing's growing control over the city.
Paris-based watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) placed the city 73rd in its 2017 Press Freedom Index, saying the city may be looking at "the beginning of the end of ‘one country, two systems’," which promised the maintenance of its traditional freedoms under the terms of the handover agreement.
Reported by Lam Kwok-lap for RFA's Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.