The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights said Monday it was "alarmed" by the detentions in Hong Kong linked to the anniversary of China's crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square, but Hong Kong's government hit back at what it called attempts to "smear" lawful police work.
In a Tweet, the U.N. office said: "We urge the release of anyone detained for exercising freedom of expression & peaceful assembly. We call on authorities to fully abide by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights."
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said on Monday that Beijing firmly supported Hong Kong authorities in their efforts to maintain security and stability, and the Ministry said in a statement late on Sunday that "today's Hong Kong is moving from chaos to stability and prosperity along the right track of "one country, two systems," according to Reuters.
Hong Kong police Monday said they detained 27 people on suspicion of destroying social peace over a two-day period as activists and ordinary people marked the 34th anniversary of the crackdown against pro-democracy demonstrators in Beijing's Tiananmen Square.
Those detained were all released after questioning, without being arrested and charged, police said.
Five others, however, were arrested after police rounded up the activists Saturday and Sunday at or near Victoria Park, the venue for an annual candlelight vigil to remember the hundreds and perhaps 2,000 who died in Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989.
All five have been released on bail. Police said those under arrest could face charges related to disorderly conduct, sedition and other unlawful behavior.
Police did not identify them, but according to local media, those arrested include two activists who wore black T-shirts commemorating June 4 or emblazoned with the word "truth" on them.
One was holding flowers for the victims, and both held signs indicating they were on a 24-hour hunger strike to remember the victims. Arrested along with them was a Hong Kong graduate student who was similarly attired.
An artist who had performed at the annual commemorations in the past was also arrested and seen in widely shared videos shouting, "Don't Forget June 4th" and "Hong Kong people, don't be afraid" as officers led him away.
Separately, a 53-year-old woman was arrested and later released on bail for allegedly obstructing police work and taken away in a van after refusing to provide identification when asked to do so.
For the past three decades, Hong Kong had been the only place in China where commemorations have been allowed, and the go-ahead for the vigils was given even after the former British colony returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1997.
Over the past three years, however, the government in Hong Kong had banned the vigils, citing COVID-19 social distancing policies. Hong Kong has now fully lifted COVID-19 restrictions.
The detentions and arrests are further evidence that the rights Hong Kong people have taken for granted, including freedom of assembly and expression, are being curtailed, long-time activists said. Those rights are granted under the city's mini constitution, known as the Basic Law.
"Hong Kong's current political environment has been tightened," said Richard Tsoi, the former vice chairman of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China. The group, which once organized the vigils, has disbanded.
Observers note that in addition to wearing black, some of those detained chose to or happened to display the pro-democracy movement's color yellow, either by carrying a yellow umbrella or wearing yellow socks. Some of the garments contained wording police considered suspicious, according to local media reports.
The observers also said Hong Kong's government didn't make it clear whether public mourning, displaying black or yellow garb, or words of commemoration were allowed.
Additionally, "Some were just holding a book (about June 4) and walking around the park," Tsoi said.
He suggested that police released most of the people detained after questioning because they have to operate according to the law and cannot charge them without reason.
"Any law enforcement department can't do whatever they want in Hong Kong; they have to consider the social response, international criticisms, so they can't overdo it," Tsoi added, while acknowledging that it is hard for people to hold collective action to commemorate the anniversary.
Analysts have said Beijing and the local government, unnerved by months of widespread, disruptive and sometimes violent protests — including foiled bombing plots — want to prevent such protests from occurring again. In 2019, Hong Kong was the site of democracy protests that triggered a widespread political crackdown.
On Monday, the Hong Kong Journalists Association issued a statement asking that police explain why officers had detained its former chairwoman at a police station Sunday for four hours until 11 p.m. local time, preventing her from doing her work.
Mak Yin-ting, Radio France Internationale's correspondent, was ordered to get into a police van near the park and taken away without explanation, even after she showed officers her journalist card, it said.
"The association urges the police to respect the work of news reporting, not detain journalists without reason, which seriously hinders the work of reporting," the association said.
Mak told VOA that in past anniversaries, police had checked her ID and that of other journalists, but she does not recall any journalist ever being taken away. Mak said she believes she and others detained were targeted because they were wearing black clothes.
"I got the sense, it's not because of what they did, but simply because they were there. Two people told me they were on their way to a nearby store to do some shopping. One person had socks with the words 'Hong Kong Add Oil (a cheering phrase)' on it. Even then, they shouldn't suspect them of harming (the) peace," said Mak.
"I certainly strongly disagree with them saying today that I was harming social peace. I was just standing there for 10 minutes observing, without talking to anyone."
The police issued a statement about the journalist's accusation, saying it did not target journalists or hinder the media from doing their work, pointing out that journalists do not have the privilege of being exempt from being stopped and searched in a high-risk area, in accordance with the law. The statement said Mak was not wearing a press card when she was stopped by the police, and had she been cooperative with them, the incident could've been avoided.
In a statement released Saturday about the activists' arrests, police said they were "highly concerned about some people attempting to incite and provoke others to commit illegal acts that endanger national security, public order and public safety."
Hong Kong's Security Bureau also issued a statement accusing the journalists association and the U.N. office of making "fact-twisting and unfounded remarks," insisting that law enforcement actions were justified and that "law enforcement agencies will continue to enforce laws without fear or favour to safeguard national security and social order."