Hong Kong appears to be intensifying its crackdown on political dissent following the arrest of 11 pro-democracy advocates over two days.
On April 26, former legislators and well known pro-independence activists Yau Wai-ching and Sixtus Baggio Leung Chung-hang were charged with unlawful assembly and attempted forced entry for attending Legislative Council (LegCo) meetings last year after they were disqualified from office.
Nine more people were arrested on Thursday and charged with participating in unlawful assembly, obstructing police, and inciting disorderly conduct in a public place for their participation in a November protest. Among them were chairman of the League of Social Democrats Avery Ng Man-yuen as well as Derek Lam Shun-hin and Ivan Lam Long-yin from the Demosisto Party.
All eleven have been released on bail, but they face prosecution and possible prison sentences, according to Human Rights Watch.
"The repeated use of vague charges reeks of an orchestrated and retaliatory campaign by the authorities to punish those that advocate for democracy," said Mabel Au, director of Amnesty International Hong Kong.
"The government should be protecting freedom of expression and peaceful assembly but instead it appears intent on intimidating people who are challenging the authorities."
As many as 11,000 demonstrators took to the streets in November after China banned Leung and Yao from LegCo in a judicial review that was Beijing's most significant form of legal intervention since Hong Kong's sovereignty was transferred from the U.K. to the mainland in 1997.
The duo, who won seats in the territory's parliament in September, made international headlines during their October oath-taking ceremony. Hong Kong politicians taking office must swear allegiance to the special administrative territory as part of China, according to Beijing's rules, but Yau and Leung instead pledged allegiance to "the Hong Kong nation" and held a banner saying "Hong Kong is not China."
This week's arrests are a break with Hong Kong's longstanding tradition of tolerating peaceful expression and demonstrations, Human Rights Watch said in a Friday statement.
"They are particularly alarming in light of central government advisers' statements in March that Beijing would use more legal means to strengthen control over Hong Kong," the organisation warned. "As the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong's handover approaches, the territory's autonomy looks increasingly fragile."