Hong Kong officials on Monday moved to calm public anger over the 'disappearance' of five owners of a political bookstore in the city that prompted thousands to take to the streets in protest at the weekend.
Thousands protested in Hong Kong Sunday at the disappearance of five owners and employees of political bookstore Causeway Bay Books and its parent publishing company amid concerns they were detained by Chinese police or their agents in Hong Kong, which has maintained its status as a separate jurisdiction since the 1997 handover to China.
"The interest in the case and the concerns expressed are totally understandable, and should be properly addressed," a bewigged Secretary for Justice Rimsky Yuen told a formal gathering to mark the start of the legal year in Hong Kong.
"The right to liberty and security of person are firmly guaranteed under the Basic Law and the Bill of Rights."
"Neither unauthorized criminal investigation nor unlawful arrest within the jurisdiction by anyone, or any authority, shall be tolerated," Yuen said.
Five men missing
Lee Bo, 65, the store's managers, known also as Paul Lee, disappeared at the end of last year, while four of his associates, publisher Gui Minhai, general manager Lui Bo and colleagues Cheung Jiping and Lam Wing-kei have gone missing under similar circumstances since October.
Some of the detainees have called to let their families know they are alive and well, and they are now widely believed to be in detention in China, amid huge public concern that they may have been taken there by Chinese police acting through unofficial channels.
Thousands of people marched to the Beijing's central government liaison office in Hong Kong from government headquarters, with some 6,000 people taking part, according to the organizers.
"No to political kidnapping! Protect one country, two systems!" protesters chanted on Sunday during the march.
"We will defend our system [and] we will defend our freedom!" protest organizer and lawmaker Lee Cheuk-yan told the rally, accusing the government of lacking the guts to stand up to Beijing.
"The people of Hong Kong will stand up to the [ruling Chinese] Communist Party to say no, no, no to political kidnap," Lee, who heads the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, said.
Prominent barrister and member of the pan-democratic Civic Party Margaret Ng said the disappearances were "the last straw."
"If a Hong Kong person in Hong Kong doing what is protected by Hong Kong laws can be snatched from Hong Kong, we have no freedom to speak of," Ng told government broadcaster RTHK.
"So this is the last straw ... we really have to come out and walk," she said.
Pop stars join rally
Cantopop stars Anthony Wong and Denise Ho--who saw some of their songs banned after joining in with the pro-democracy Umbrella Movement in 2014--also made an appearance at the rally, local media reported.
"Hong Kong people are now starting to be worried about their personal safety; I know I am," Ho told RFA. "This is the first time we have felt as if we too could be whisked away in a similar incident if we just stood up and spoke out for what we believe is right."
"As a public figure, I am even more of a target, but I don't think this only applies to the entertainment industry; this could happen to anyone from any walk of life who speaks out," she said.
And Anson Chan, former second-in-command from the British colonial era government, called on the government to make a full explanation of the
men's disappearance to the public.
"I want [my grandson] to realize that his grandfather is always taking to the streetes, because this is really a terrifying situation," a protester who gave only a nickname Tommy told RFA on Sunday.
"If they can just come to Hong Kong randomly detain people, then it's better if a lot of people turn out," he said.
"We must know the ins and outs of how this happened; how somebody could just come to Hong Kong and kidnap somebody."
Yellow umbrellas again
Another protester, who gave on his surname Choi, carried a yellow umbrella, a common symbol of the Occupy Central pro-democracy movement.
"Today's protest is because Lee Bo was snatched away from Hong Kong, trampling on the whole idea of one country, two systems, and on the rule of law," Choi said.
"The yellow umbrella is for democracy, justice and universal suffrage, and they are all part of the same thing."
James Hon, spokesman for the League in Defense of Hong Kong's Freedoms, said he has severe doubts about whether Lee or the others are really safe and well, as they have told their families in brief phone calls.
"Somebody who has been kidnapped is under duress; they will say whatever they are told to say, write whatever they are told to write," Hon said.
"These letters and phone calls saying they are supposedly safe and well have no credibility whatsoever," he said.
Bruce Lui, journalism lecturer at Hong Kong's Baptist University, said he is also very worried, as the city's journalists warned of a rapid loss of freedom of expression since the 1997 handover, which came amid promises of a "high degree of autonomy" for Hong Kong.
"If [the kidnappings] turn out to be correct, then it's really very worrying," Lui said. "It will mean that Hong Kong's firewall; its one country, two systems promise and its rule of law, have been utterly destroyed."
"Today, it's a handful of people affected, but tomorrow, it could be the freedom of millions of Hong Kong people, and the rule of law, at stake," he said.
"[This could be] the end of one country, two systems."
Media commentator Molly Choi said the current situation is unacceptable.
"Lee Bo has disappeared, either kidnapped, or taken by the mainland Chinese public security bureau," Choi said. "If it's the latter, then this is a question of the abuse of official power."
"Hong Kong society, public opinion and the media must stand up in protest, and care about what happens to this bookstore," she said.
"Everyone is at risk; nobody is safe if the mainland police can just cross the border and detain people."
Reported by Wen Yuqing for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Gao Shan for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.