HONG KONG - Hong Kong police on Friday told nine more pro-democracy activists that they would face charges for “inciting” people to participate in last week’s rally to commemorate the June 4, 1989, Tiananmen crackdown.
The move came a day after police told Jimmy Lai, founder of the Apple Daily newspaper, and three core members of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, Richard Tsoi and former lawmakers Lee Cheuk-yan and Albert Ho, that they would be prosecuted on the charge of "inciting others to participate in an unauthorized assembly."
On Friday, the alliance said nine activists, including its vice-chairwoman Chow Hang-tung, core members Cheung Man-kwong and Leung Yiu-chung, as well as chairman of the Labour Party Steven Kwok and Figo Chan, the vice convener of the Civil Human Rights Front, which has organized mass protests including the million-strong demonstration that kicked off the anti-extradition movement in June last year, would also face charges.
The alliance had organized the annual candlelight vigil for 30 years. The event took place uninterrupted until this year, when police banned the event on the grounds that it would pose a "major threat to public health" even though the pandemic has eased in Hong Kong and major leisure facilities including swimming pools and theme parks have reopened.
Thousands, however, defied the police ban and thronged to Victoria Park to commemorate the Tiananmen crackdown anyway. And because police had refused to issue a permit for an organized event, the alliance had urged people in advance to hold individual commemorations, light candles at home, or take part in online meetings on the 31st anniversary of the military crackdown.
In a statement late Thursday, police said they issued a notice of objection to the organizers of the June 4 candlelight vigil, but “some people still ignored it and called on the public to attend an unauthorized rally in Victoria Park.”
Without giving names, the police statement said it had applied to the court for a summons of four men aged between 52 and 72 on the charge. Police said they could arrest more people involved in the case. Police have not immediately responded to a reporter’s request for comments on Friday.
Six of the people contacted by police, Lai, Lee, Ho, Tsoi, Leung and Chan, are also among the 15 prominent democracy activists arrested by police in mid-April on charges of illegal assembly in the biggest crackdown on the semi-autonomous city’s pro-democracy movement since mass, sometimes violent anti-government protests rocked the former British colony in June last year.
Lai is also currently on bail for allegedly intimidating a reporter from the pro-Beijing media at a vigil in 2017. He has pleaded innocent to a count of criminal intimidation, and a trial is scheduled to begin August 18.
Ho told the VOA that the government was using the coronavirus pandemic as an excuse to crack down on freedom of speech and assembly. “The police did not stop or disperse people on the night. Now they are settling accounts and carrying out political suppression,” he said.
Tsoi told the VOA he was “very angry about the prosecutions.”
“We didn’t incite people to participate in an unauthorized assembly … We told people that it couldn’t go ahead and told them to hold individual commemorations,” he said.
“This is a politically motivated crackdown to intimidate Hong Kong people and to suppress the June 4 and other assemblies,” Tsoi said.
Hong Kong’s freedoms are under unprecedented threats after China’s parliament, the National People’s Congress, passed a plan in late May to impose sweeping national security laws on Hong Kong to prevent and punish “acts and activities” that threaten national security, including advocacy of secession, subversion and terrorism and foreign interference. The plan, which bypassed Hong Kong’s legislature, would also allow Chinese national security organs to set up agencies in the city.
China insisted that such laws were necessary to halt anti-government protests in Hong Kong, which began in June last year. The movement, which started off being peaceful but turned violent as frustrations mounted, was sparked by a controversial extradition law that could see individuals sent to mainland China for trial.
Meanwhile, Hong Kong’s security chief, John Lee, said police were setting up a special unit to enforce the upcoming national security law. He said it would be ready to function on the “very first day” the controversial legislation takes effect, according to the South China Morning Post, a leading Hong Kong newspaper.
Lee said the new unit would have intelligence gathering, investigation and training capabilities but declined to elaborate on how Hong Kong police would work with the agency set up by China’s national security authorities after the law is in place.