HONG KONG -- Outspoken Hong Kong publisher Jimmy Lai and two prominent opposition politicians were charged Friday with illegal assembly over a pro-democracy march last year as the territory's Beijing-backed government appeared to move to settle scores over the protests.
The months of demonstrations calling for reforms in semi-autonomous Hong Kong crippled its economy and put its leaders and police force under unprecedented pressure.
Lai was picked up from his home by police officers early Friday, while former pro-democracy legislator Yeung Sum and former legislator and vice chairman of the Labour Party, Lee Cheuk-yan, were also arrested.
“Well, the Hong Kong situation is getting tense here, but we have to go on, we have to go on,” Lai told reporters after speaking with officers. The three left the police station after being charged and are to appear in court on May 5. They could face up to five years in prison along with fines.
Senior police officer Wong Tung-kwong said all three were charged with illegal assembly in connection with the Aug. 31 march, which was timed to mark the fifth anniversary of a decision by China against fully democratic elections in Hong Kong.
Organizers called off the march after police banned it, but hundreds of thousands of people defied the order and filled the streets in several areas of the Asian financial hub. Protesters threw gasoline bombs at government headquarters and set fires in the streets, while police stormed a subway car and hit passengers with batons and pepper spray in some of the most violent scenes up to that point in the protest movement.
Hong Kong broadcaster TVB showed police on the platform of Prince Edward subway station swinging batons at passengers who backed into one end of a train car behind umbrellas. The video also showed pepper spray being shot through an open door at a group seated on the floor while one man holds up his hands.
Police arrested thousands during the protest movement that began in June but fizzled out toward the end of the year amid harsher tactics by authorities. Prison sentences have been threatened against many on charges including rioting and possessing offensive weapons.
The demonstrations initially protested proposed legislation which would have allowed Hong Kong residents to be sent to mainland China to stand trial, but later included demands for democratic elections and an investigation into police use of force. Many fear Beijing is steadily eroding the legal guarantees and freedoms Hong Kong was promised after it was handed over from British to Chinese rule in 1997.
Lai is an entrepreneur and longtime activist who sold his clothing chain under political pressure and has since focused on media in Hong Kong and Taiwan.
The U.S. expressed concern over the arrests, with State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus saying Washington expected local authorities “not use law enforcement selectively for political purposes.”
Hong Kong should ”handle cases fairly and transparently in a manner that preserves the rule of law and the Hong Kong people’s universal rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of expression,” Ortagus said in a statement.
Hong Kong’s last British governor, Chris Patten, described the three arrested as “brave and respected advocates of free speech, accountable government, responsible social policy and political liberty.”
“This decision will send yet another signal to the world that the Chinese Communist Party is intent on throttling decency and freedom in Hong Kong.,” Patten said.
China’s official Xinhua News Agency, meanwhile, published a scathing criticism of Lai and the others, accusing them of colluding with foreign external to separate Hong Kong from Beijing’s control, and issuing an ominous threat of more prosecutions to come.
“We have every reason to believe that the trial of traitors like Lai has only just begun,” the editorial said.
Friday's arrests come just days after China sentenced a Swedish seller of books that looked skeptically on the ruling Communist Party to 10 years for “illegally providing intelligence overseas," in a display of Beijing’s hard line toward its critics.
Gui Minhai first disappeared in 2015, when he was believed to have been abducted by Chinese agents from his seaside home in Thailand. He and four others who worked for the same Hong Kong publishing company all went missing at about the same time, only to turn up months later in police custody in mainland China.
In announcing the sentence Tuesday, the Ningbo Intermediate People's Court said Gui, a naturalized Swedish citizen, had admitted to his crime, agreed with the sentence and would not appeal.