Labor joins US, UK in condemning Hong Kong arrests of democracy advocates

Hong Kong: Labor's Penny Wong has joined the United States and Britain in condemning the arrests of at least 14 veteran pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong over last year's protests, saying the police action jeopardises a high degree of autonomy guaranteed the southern Chinese city.

Among those arrested Saturday were 81-year-old activist and former lawmaker Martin Lee and democracy advocates Albert Ho, Lee Cheuk-yan and Au Nok-hin. Police also arrested media tycoon Jimmy Lai, who founded the local newspaper Apple Daily.

Pro-democracy supporters hold banners and shout slogans outside of the Western District police station in Hong Kong after at least 14 pro-democracy veterans and supporters were arrested on Saturday.Credit:Getty Images

The sweeping crackdown amid a coronavirus pandemic is based on charges of unlawful assembly stemming from huge rallies against proposed China extradition legislation that exposed deep divisions between democracy-minded Hong Kongers and the Communist Party-ruled central government in Beijing.

The bill – which would have allowed the residents of the semi-autonomous Chinese territory to be sent to mainland to stand trial – has been withdrawn, but the protests continued for more than seven months, centred around demands for voting rights and an independent inquiry into police conduct.

While the protests began peacefully, they increasingly descended into violence after demonstrators became frustrated with the government's response. They feel that Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam has ignored their demands and used the police to suppress them.

Australian opposition foreign spokeswoman Penny Wong on Sunday said the arrests were "deeply concerning".

"Freedom of assembly is enshrined in Hong Kong’s Basic Law. ‘One Country, Two Systems’ must be upheld. One of the arrested was Martin Lee, 'the father of HK democracy'. The timing during a pandemic is of further concern."

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo condemned the arrests in a statement.

"Beijing and its representatives in Hong Kong continue to take actions inconsistent with commitments made under the Sino-British Joint Declaration that include transparency, the rule of law, and guarantees that Hong Kong will continue to 'enjoy a high degree of autonomy,'" Pompeo said. He was referring to the 1997 handover of the former British colony to China, which promised the city would enjoy political freedoms not afforded mainland China.

Britain's Foreign Office also criticised the arrests, saying "the right to peaceful protest is fundamental to Hong Kong's way of life and as such is protected in both the Joint Declaration and the Basic Law".

Beijing has accused the US and other Western countries of instigating the protests and insists they're China's internal affairs.

The Office of the Commissioner of the Chinese Foreign Ministry in Hong Kong said police were enforcing the law against those suspected of organising and participating in unauthorised assemblies, and foreign countries have no right to interfere, China's official Xinhua News Agency reported.

"It is completely wrong that the UK Foreign Office spokesperson has distorted the truth by painting unauthorised assemblies as 'peaceful protests,' in a bid to whitewash, condone and exonerate the anti-China troublemakers in Hong Kong," the statement said.

Lai, Lee Cheuk-yan and Yeung Sum – a former lawmaker from the Democratic Party who was also arrested – were charged in February over their involvement in a rally on August 31 last year.

The Hong Kong authorities had denied permission for most of the rallies and police increasingly used tear gas and pepper spray against demonstrators, arresting hundreds.

The League of Social Democrats wrote in a Facebook post on Saturday that its leaders were among those arrested, including chairman Raphael Wong. They were accused of participating in two unauthorised protests on August 18 and October 1 last year.

AP with staff reporters

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