Police in Hong Kong on Friday arrested pro-democracy media tycoon Jimmy Lai for attending a pro-democracy rally last August, as the anti-extradition movement broadened into a broad-based movement against growing political interference from Beijing and for fully democratic elections.
Lai, 72, who owns the pro-democracy Apple Daily newspaper, was arrested alongside veteran democracy activists Lee Cheuk-yan and Yeung Sum, and charged with taking part in an "illegal assembly."
The charge carries a maximum jail term of five years. The initial court hearing will be on May 5.
Lai was among thousands of others who defied a police ban on a protest march on Aug. 31, a date that was marked by a violent assault by riot police on train passengers at Prince Edward MTR station.
Some of the marchers said they were in a religious procession titled "Pray for Sinners," which doesn't need police approval, while others claimed to be shopping.
Police senior superintendent Wong Tung-kwong of Hong Kong Island's crime headquarters said the Aug. 31 rally hadn't received a "letter of no objection" from police before going ahead.
"This was in breach of Section 245, Article 17 of the Public Order Ordinance," Wong told journalists. He said Lai, whom he described as a 72-year-old male, was also accused of intimidating a journalist during the Tiananmen massacre memorial event of 2017.
He said the three had been released on bail pending further investigation.
"The police will arrest them once our investigations are complete," Wong said.
Lee Cheuk-yan told reporters after his release on bail at noon on Friday that police had confiscated his cell phone, and said he was concerned that they may scan it for intelligence.
"My cell phone shouldn't be needed at all as evidence," Lee said. "We are worried about where [its contents] will end up."
"The government is going to look at the data ... then use it to settle scores," he said. "It's a way of threatening the people of Hong Kong."
'Shameless attempt to harass'
London-based rights group Amnesty International said the arrests of Lai, Lee, and Yeung were unjustifiable.
"These unjustifiable arrests are a shameless attempt to harass and silence those in Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement," the group's Hong Kong director Man-Kei Tam said in a statement.
"It continues the pattern of the authorities using politically motivated charges to suppress opposition voices," Tam said, adding that the vast majority of Aug. 31 protesters were exercising their right to peaceful assembly.
"Peaceful protests do not require authorisation and are therefore not ‘unlawful,’ as the Hong Kong authorities claim," he said. "This merely appears to be the police’s way of intimidating anyone planning to take part."
He once more called for an independent inquiry into police violence and "heavy-handed" tactics when dealing with the protest movement last year.
Tam's statement said that some protesters threw bricks and petrol bombs at police on Aug. 31, while police fired blue dye in water cannons at the crowds to mark people for identification later.
"On the same evening, riot police stormed into train carriages at Prince Edward metro station and assualted passengers," it said. "Two live warning shots were also fired by the police near Causeway Bay."
The UN Human Rights Committee has repeatedly expressed concern that the application of “unlawful assembly” charges against Hong Kong protesters risks violating their human rights, Amnesty said.
From June to December 2019, the Hong Kong police banned 47 out of 537 applications for public processions or meetings, it said, citing police figures.
Democratic Party lawmaker Andrew Wan said the arrests appeared to be timed to distract people from a huge increase in the police budget.
"Maybe arresting them at this time is a bid ... to distract our attention," Wan said. "The focus right now is the pay rise for police, and the dispute over a substantial increase in their resources and allowances."
"Maybe ... they want us to look at something else?"
Under the "one country, two systems" framework agreed before the 1997 handover to Chinese rule, Hong Kong was promised the maintenance of its freedoms of speech, assembly, and political participation.
The protests that erupted in June 2019 in response to plans to allow extradition to mainland China were largely triggered by the erosion of those freedoms, particularly following a series of high-profile interventions by the ruling Chinese Communist Party in the city's political life, including the debarring of pro-democracy lawmakers and would-be election candidates for their political views.
In 2014, Beijing decreed that while it would allow Hongkongers to each have a vote in popular elections, they would only be allowed to choose from among candidates approved by China.
Millions of pro-democracy supporters have taken to Hong Kong's streets with demands for a public inquiry into police violence, fully democratic elections, an amnesty for thousands of arrested protesters, and an end to the use of the word "rioters" to describe the movement.
While chief executive Carrie Lam formally withdrew hated amendments to the city's laws in October, protesters slammed her response as too little, too late, and demanded she address the rapid erosion of the city's promised freedoms.
Reported by Man Hoi-tsan for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Lu Xi for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.