Police in Hong Kong arrested 14 pro-democracy figures on Saturday, including Democratic Party founder Martin Lee, rights lawyer Albert Ho and media tycoon Jimmy Lai, for "illegal assembly" in connection with mass street protests last year.
Martin Lee is considered the grandfather of the Hong Kong democracy movement, while Lai owns the Apple Daily, the biggest pro democracy media organization in the city.
The group were arrested in a coordinated raid on Saturday, just days after Beijing dismissed a clause in the city's Basic Law proscribing Chinese government departments from interfering in the city's daily life.
The U.K.-based rights group Hong Kong Watch said the arrests were "politically motivated."
"The politically motivated arrests of 14 of the most prominent democracy campaigners in Hong Kong ... represents a concerted effort by the Chinese Communist Party to use the world’s focus on the COVID-19 pandemic to strangle dissent in the city," the group said in a statement on Saturday.
It said the group of prominent activists and former pro-democracy lawmakers were arrested under the city's Public Order Ordinance, which allows police to describe public protests as "unlawful assemblies" at will, and then arrest people for taking part in them.
The practice has consistently been described by the United Nations as a clear breach of human rights, it said.
In Washington, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said China and its "representatives" in Hong Kong were violating the terms underpinning the 1997 handover to China of the former British colony.
"The United States condemns the arrest of pro-democracy advocates in Hong Kong," he said in a written statement.
Hong Kong police superintendent Lam Wing-ho confirmed that 14 people aged between 24 and 81 were arrested on charges of organizing and participating in "unlawful assemblies" on Aug. 18 and Oct. 1 and 20 last year, but declined to name any of the arrestees.
'Now I've finally become a defendant.'
Martin Lee, who was released on bail on Saturday, said he had no regrets.
“Over the months and years, I’ve felt bad to see so many outstanding youngsters being arrested and prosecuted, but I was not charged," Lee told journalists. "Now I've finally become a defendant."
"I'm proud to have the chance to walk our democracy road with Hong Kong's excellent young people," he said.
The arrestees stand accused of organizing a peaceful march on Aug. 18, 2019 against plans by Hong Kong's leader Carrie Lam to allow extradition of alleged criminal suspects to mainland China that saw 1.7 million people take to the city's streets.
Pro-democracy figures Yeung Sum, Sin Chung-kai, Lee Cheuk-yan, long-time social activist Leung Kwok-hung, known as "Long Hair," former lawmakers Au Nok-hin and Cyd Ho, march organizer Figo Chan and rights activists Raphael Wong, Avery Ng and Richard Tsoi were also arrested, along with barrister Margaret Ng.
Some charges also related to rallies held on Oct. 1 and Oct. 20, 2019.
Democratic lawmaker Claudia Mo said the government is trying "to introduce a reign of terror in Hong Kong."
"They are doing whatever they can to try to silence, to take down, the local opposition," Mo told RTHK.
Civic Party lawmaker Alvin Yeung said the authorities are exacting political revenge on the protest movement while the rest of the world is focused on the coronavirus pandemic.
"The Hong Kong government is making mass arrests at a time when lawmakers ... are tied up with epidemic prevention work and its funding package," Yeung said.
"Everyone else in Hong Kong is fighting the coronavirus pandemic, and they're making delayed revenge arrests? We see what you're doing," he said.
Another step towards 'burying handover terms
Dozens of supporters and members of the Confederation of Trade Unions (CTU), Labour Party and League of Social Democrats protested outside Cheung Sha Wan police station, where some of the arrestees were taken, government broadcaster RTHK reported.
The U.K. Foreign and Commonwealth Office said it was watching the cases closely.
"The right to peaceful protest is fundamental to Hong Kong’s way of life," it said in a statement, citing the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration and the city's mini-constitution, the Basic Law, as legal protection for those rights.
"It is essential that any protests are conducted peacefully, and that the authorities avoid actions that inflame tensions," it said.
Lord Patten of Barnes, the last British governor of Hong Kong, said China had taken another step towards "burying" the terms of the 1997 handover of Hong Kong.
"The arrest of some of the most distinguished leaders over decades of the campaign for democracy and the rule of law in Hong Kong is an unprecedented assault on the values which have underpinned Hong Kong's way of life for years," Patten said.
"This is not the rule of law. This is what authoritarian governments do," he said, adding that Beijing was determined to "throttle Hong Kong."
Former U.K. foreign secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind said the arrests were an "appalling attack" on the rule of law in Hong Kong.
"I know some of them personally and I know these individuals are not radicals or ‘rioters’, they are highly-respected internationally renowned establishment politicians known for their commitment to the rule of law and basic freedoms," Rifkind said.
Reported by Wong Lok-to for RFA's Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.