Six activists who stormed the grounds of a Chinese government office in December to protest a dissident’s punishment were arrested Thursday by Hong Kong police in what critics say is part of growing political persecution in the former British colony.
Unlike the rest of China, Hong Kong is promised Western-style civil liberties like freedom of protest. Britain returned Hong Kong to Chinese rule in 1997 but retained separate political and economic systems.
A police statement said the six sneaked into the grounds of the Chinese liaison office when its main gates opened for a car on Christmas Day. They scuffled with security guards, but eventually left on their own.
The protesters were demanding the release of prominent Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo. The literary critic was sentenced that day to 11 years in jail after co-writing an unusually direct appeal to the government calling for expanded political freedoms.
Richard Tsoi said he and his five fellow protesters were charged with unlawful assembly and released on bail of 500 Hong Kong dollars ($64). Unlawful assembly carries a maximum penalty of five years in jail.
Both Tsoi and an independent human rights activist questioned if the arrests were justified.
“We staged a peaceful assembly that day. This is pure political persecution,” Tsoi said. “It is clear the Hong Kong government is bending to pressure from the Chinese government to suppress pro-democracy movements.”
“To press charges against the protesters is absurd. Hong Kongers should have the right to express their opinions. It only goes to show the low level of political tolerance in Hong Kong,” Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor Law Yuk-kai said.
Hong Kong police spokesman Michael Kwan said he didn’t have immediate comment on the allegations of political persecution.
One of the other arrested activists, pro-democracy legislator Lee Cheuk-yan, a veteran union organiser and frequent protester, told Hong Kong’s radio RTHK it was the first time he has ever been charged with unlawful assembly since entering politics 30 years ago.
Also arrested was Leung Kwok-hung, a legislator who resigned with four other opposition colleagues in January as part of a new push for political reforms in Hong Kong. Chinese officials have been highly critical of the campaign, calling it a challenge to Beijing’s central authority.
The arrests were the latest police actions for protests at the Chinese government’s liaison office in Hong Kong. Earlier this year, Hong Kong police arrested two young activists who took part in a New Year’s Day demonstration demanding democratic reforms. The protesters turned rowdy, trying but failing to breach a police cordon guarding the liaison office. Police also raided an underground radio station where one of the arrested activists hosts a show.