Seven pro-democracy Hong Kong politicians were arrested Sunday over protests and scuffles that broke out in the legislature earlier this year, the latest prosecutions targeting Beijing’s opponents in the deeply divided city.
The seven politicians — four of them sitting lawmakers — were arrested on charges of “contempt” and “interfering” with members of the city’s Legislative Council in early May, police said.
The chamber passes semi-autonomous Hong Kong’s laws, but only half of its seats are directly elected and a complex appointment system ensures the city’s pro-Beijing establishment is all but guaranteed a handsome majority.
Scuffles and protests routinely break out, with the pro-democracy minority often resorting to filibustering, chanting and obstruction to try and halt bills they oppose.
On May 8, confrontations broke out in a committee that decides which bills come up for debate.
The opposition had used months of filibustering to stop the appointment of the committee’s leader. The pro-Beijing camp responded by forcibly installing one of their politicians to the committee chair.
That prompted angry scenes and protests in the chamber with lawmakers from both sides displaying placards amid boisterous heckling and physical obstruction.
Security guards and pro-Beijing lawmakers eventually dragged most of the pro-democracy politicians from the chamber and the installation of the committee chair went ahead.
One pro-Beijing politician was seen on a live broadcast dragging an opponent out by his shirt collar — an incident which has sparked an ongoing private prosecution.
Sunday’s police action singled out the pro-democracy politicians for arrest and is the latest in a string of prosecutions launched against Beijing critics.
“Some lawmakers dashed towards the security guards surrounding the rostrum and made it impossible for the meeting to go on,” chief inspector Chan Wing-yu told reporters.
Asked why only pro-democracy politicians faced prosecution that day for their actions, Chan declined to comment.
The arrested politicians could face up to a year in jail if convicted.
Democratic Party leader Wu Chi-wai, who is among the seven held, said the arrests showed the government was concocting pretexts to suppress resistance within the legislature.
“The allegation of contempt now is trying to criminalise the lawmakers’ expression of criticism,” Wu said.
The inability of Hong Kongers to elect their leaders and lawmakers has been at the heart of swelling opposition to Beijing’s rule, including the huge and often violent democracy protests that broke out last year.
More than 10,000 people were arrested and the courts are now filled with trials — many of them involving opposition lawmakers and prominent figures.
In a direct response to the protests, Beijing bypassed the legislature and imposed a sweeping new national security law on Hong Kong in late June.
Beijing says the law has restored stability. Critics say it has delivered a hammer blow to the city’s already stuttering freedoms.
The Liaison Office — which represents Beijing’s central government in the city — has warned that future legislature protests constitute one of the new national security crimes, which carry 10 years to life in jail.
In September, elections for the legislature were postponed for a year, with authorities blaming the coronavirus.