HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong police have arrested four people aged 16-21 on suspicion of offenses under the city’s new national security law, the first such detentions outside street protests since the law went into effect a month ago.
Reporters are taking photos and videos of a police vehicle moving inside the station, where members of the Hong Kong Independence Group, arrested by a national security unit, were believed to be passing in Hong Kong, China, on July 29, 2020. REUTERS / Tyrone Siu
At a news conference shortly before midnight on Wednesday, a police spokesman said three men and a woman, all students, were suspected of involvement in an online group that had pledged to use all means to fight for an independent Hong Kong.
“We have been arrested for … undermining and organizing, as well as inciting () a split,”; said Li Kwai-wa, the police chief of the national security department.
“They wanted to unite all the independent groups in Hong Kong in order to promote Hong Kong’s independence.”
China considers Hong Kong an “inalienable” part of the country, so calls for independence are anathema to Beijing’s Communist Party leaders.
Police said some cell phones, computers and documents were seized during the operation.
Beijing introduced controversial legislation on its free city until midnight on June 30, punishing what it generally defines as secession, sabotage, terrorism, and conspiracy with foreign forces to face life imprisonment.
Activists in Hong Kong have been trying to close or rebrand social media accounts that could violate the new security law before it is introduced. Police said in July that four people were suspected of posting content that violated the law.
Human Rights Watch has condemned the arrests and called on governments to impose targeted sanctions on Hong Kong and Chinese government officials responsible for the new law.
“The gross abuse of this draconian law makes it clear that the goal is to silence dissidents, not to protect national security,” said Sophie Richardson, director of China at Human Rights Watch.
The law has been condemned by some Western governments, business leaders and human rights groups, who say it is Beijing’s last step to strengthen relations with the former British colony.
Beijing believes the law is crucial to cutting holes in national security defenses, which are subject to month-long brutal anti-government protests that have rocked the city over the past year.
Authorities in Beijing and Hong Kong say the law will apply to target only a minority of “violators.”
In a Facebook post, the Initiative Independence Party said four former members of Studentlocalism, an independence group that had been dissolved before the new law came into force, had been arrested on suspicion of violating Articles 20 and 21 of the Secession Act. They were denied bail.
Police did not name the suspects, but local media and online media said that among those arrested was Tony Chung, a former convocation of student calicism.
Critics of security legislation fear it will stifle broad freedoms not seen on the mainland, including the freedom of speech that was guaranteed to Hong Kong for 50 years when it returned to Chinese rule in 1997.
Like student localism, many anti-government groups disbanded just before the law came into force, ranging from the pro-independence of the Hong Kong National Front to the pro-democracy Democist, led by young activist Joshua Wong.
Hundreds of small shops removed protest slogans from their walls, while publishers began censoring or even rejecting books that feared the authorities might consider them subversive.
Reports by Joyce Zhou, Carol Mang, Yanni Chow and Jesse Pang; Writing by Anne Marie Rontry; Edited by Lincoln Fest and Michael Perry