Last month’s mass arrests are the latest blow to Hong Kong’s autonomy, say legal bodies and human rights groups in the city and beyond. But the arrests haven’t been the only development concerning to pro-democracy activists in the city. On April 15, prominent activists including Martin Lee, founding chair of Hong Kong’s Democratic Party, barrister Margaret Ng, and founder of One Media Jimmy Lai, were arrested on illegal assembly charges. The high-profile nature of the arrests have led many to speculate that these are intended to send a broader message to protesters.

 

Jason Y. Ng, convener of the Progressive Lawyers Group, an advocacy group that “seeks to defend Hong Kong’s rule of law,” believes that the arrests have sent a clear signal to citizens that the government will pursue them “with the fullest extent of the law, and that it will throw every resource it has available to it to deter them from taking to the streets and making their voices heard.”

Johnny Patterson, director of Hong Kong Watch, a UK-headquartered human rights organisation, labels the arrests as “shocking.” “Arresting a group of some of the most well-known and highly respected activists, including the city’s most senior lawyer, for their participation in largely peaceful marches is a major statement of intent,” says Patterson.

At the same time, pro-democracy advocates in Hong Kong say the arrests are compounded by comments made from Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office (HKMAO), which supported the police response, and commented on domestic politics.

These statements breach HKMAO’s remit, say pro-democracy activists. The Hong Kong government has backed the comments, releasing a statement in support.

The Hong Kong Bar Association has released a statement saying these recent statements are “inconsistent” with past comments from the HKSAR Government. “On such an important issue and given the plain and obvious meaning of Article 22 of the Basic Law, the people of Hong Kong are entitled to a clear, reasoned and properly supported exposition of the legal position. The current uncertainty contributes to undermining confi-dence in both the CPG’s and the HKSAR Government’s commitment to enshrined in the Basic Law,” the statement said.

The arrests and comments have not escaped global attention. The International Bar Association noted that the “international legal community is seriously concerned by the arrest of 15 veteran pro-democracy figures in Hong Kong.”

Pauline Wright, president of the Law Council of Australia, says the arrests violate the right to peaceful protest, guar-anteed under Hong Kong’s Basic Law. “The Law Council is deeply concerned that these arrests have taken place well after the 2019 protests in question, and against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic. The undermining of the rule of law in Hong Kong, as well as the threats to the human rights and civil liberties of its residents, will not go unnoticed,” Wright says.

Patterson also points to the broader ramifications of the recent developments in Hong Kong. Fitch’s decision to down-grade Hong Kong’s rating shows that the city’s reputation as a credible inter-national financial and legal hub “is on a knife-edge,” he says, but adds this is not directly in response to the recent arrests and is instead a result of the cumulative impact of Hong Kong’s government policies over recent years.

“In the last year we have seen the government bulldoze ahead with the extradition bill despite business objections, ineptly handle protestor grievances and thereby spark a spiral of increasingly violent protest fuelled by police brutality, and pursue a campaign of politicised prosecutions,” Patterson says.

“At each turn, the SAR government - presumably responding to diktats from Beijing - continually fail to take actions which inspire confidence that they are able to act in the best interests of the city as a financial centre in the long run,” he adds.

Outside of Hong Kong, Jason Y. Ng agrees, the arrests have added to a growing perception that the city is “no longer the free society that foreign states and businesses once thought it was,” he says. “Names like Martin Lee and Jimmy Lai are internationally known; to the overseas observer, their arrest for merely participating in a nonviolent rally is as shocking as it is consistent with the views that the erosion of freedoms in Hong Kong is real and quickening,” he says, calling the “almost choreographed rounding-up of the city’s leading activists” an attempt to intimidate ordinary citizens from participating in protests in the future.

 

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