Police in Hong Kong on Wednesday arrested two former lawmakers-elect for "illegal assembly" after they staged a protest in the city's Legislative Council (LegCo) last year during a row over their altered oaths of allegiance.
Yau Wai-ching and Sixtus Leung were formally barred from taking up their seats last year following a high-level intervention from Beijing, when the city's courts ruled that their Oct. 12 oaths were invalid because they weren't "solemn and sincere."
The duo, both members of the youth group Youngspiration, had vowed allegiance to the "Hong Kong Nation" and carried banners saying "Hong Kong is not China" during their swearing-in ceremonies, while Yau swore in her reference to China.
They were both taken away from their homes early on Wednesday and questioned for several hours over a protest on Nov. 2, when they barged into the LegCo chamber and another conference room, disrupting proceedings, government broadcaster RTHK reported.
It said "at least four" security staff members were injured in the scuffles that ensued, without giving details.
Sixtus Leung told reporters the charges against the pair were "ridiculous," because he and Yau were elected representatives at the time they entered the LegCo building.
"It surprised me, because I don't believe that a lawmaker can [commit] unlawful assembly in the chamber," Leung said following his release on bail. "That is totally unreasonable and unacceptable to me."
"[There's no] room for regret," he said. "This wasn't a choice made by us but ... by the government, to continue to spend public money, time and energy on attacks against the political opposition."
"We will continue to resist," Leung said. "We don't have much choice, and there is bound to be an impact, whether emotional or material, as ... we will now have to find the money to fight another round of legal proceedings."
Yau said she and Leung had been acting lawfully on Nov. 2.
"We entered the building using our current status as lawmakers-elect, and we were stopped by LegCo staff who tried to prevent us from doing our jobs," she said. "This in itself undermines the credibility of LegCo."
"The Hong Kong administration and the [ruling Chinese] Communist Party have cobbled together these charges of illegal assembly to arrest both of us," Yau said. "It is clear that they are hell-bent on taking a hard line to suppress public opinion."
League of Social Democrats lawmaker Leung Kwok-hung said the use of illegal assembly laws to target two elected representatives was "unreasonable."
"We all have a reasonable right to attend meetings in LegCo, and they were trying to attend in order to re-take their oaths of allegiance," he said. "This whole affair ... sets a very dangerous precedent."
While pro-Beijing lawmaker Starry Lee said the arrests were legitimate given the "hurt" done to the security of LegCo, Hong Kong First lawmaker Claudia Mo called the move “utterly absurd.”
"I couldn’t help thinking that the [Hong Kong government] is so determined to make sure that the opposition voice is all dead," RTHK quoted Mo as saying. “And he wouldn’t leave out any chance to suppress any opposition voice.”
Targeting political activists
The pair's arrest is the latest in a string of arrests and charges brought against Hong Kong's younger generation of political activists, which have included convictions and non-custodial punishments for key leaders of the 2014 Occupy Central campaign for universal suffrage.
The city's High Court is currently deliberating an application to strip former democracy protest leader Nathan Law of the Demosisto party, veteran rights activist and League of Social Democrats member Leung Kwok-hung, Lau Siu-lai from Democracy Groundwork and Edward Yiu, who represents the surveying profession, of their seats for changing the wording of their oaths.
The government has accused the four of taking their oaths of office "without solemnity and sincerity," qualities which were judged necessary for validity in a retroactive ruling by the People's Congress Standing Committee on Hong Kong's mini-constitution, the Basic Law.
The attempts to unseat serving lawmakers came after former student leaders Joshua Wong, Nathan Law, and Alex Chow were found guilty of public order offenses last July for their role in the occupation of a cordoned-off public space at the start of the movement.
Wong and Chow were convicted of "unlawful assembly" after they climbed into the fenced-off area outside government headquarters on the night of Sept. 26, 2014, at the start of a 79-day civil disobedience campaign for universal suffrage.
They were handed suspended and community service sentences that were later challenged by prosecutors in the former British colony seeking jail time instead, to no avail.
According to Hong Kong journalist and rights activist Kong Tsung-gan, 23 pro-democracy leaders are facing 30 different types of legal action, including 10 new-generation activists and seven who are regarded as "radical."
Eight challenge Hong Kong's status as a Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China.
"In essence, the Hong Kong government is trying to nip new movements, whether for self-determination or independence, in the bud but also to intimidate the wider pro-democracy movement," Kong wrote via Medium on Wednesday. "Eight eminently old-style, traditional, moderate pan-democrats have also been targeted."
The Occupy Central, or Umbrella, Movement for fully democratic elections rejected Beijing's insistence, made in an Aug. 31, 2014 ruling, that any move to universal suffrage in the city must include the vetting of candidates by its supporters, who rejected the idea as "fake" universal suffrage.
At its height, hundreds of thousands of people poured onto the city's streets in protest, using umbrellas to protect themselves from sun, rain, and pepper spray, and giving the Umbrella Movement its nickname.
But the movement ended with no political victory, and amid accusations from China's state media that the protests were being orchestrated by "hostile foreign forces" behind the scenes.
Reported by Lam Kwok-lap for RFA's Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.