Lai, who was arrested with two other activists, has been a major financial patron of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement
Apple Daily’s Jimmy Lai, a financial patron of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement, has been arrested Photograph: Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters
Hong Kong police have arrested three veteran pro-democracy figures for taking part in an unauthorised anti-government march last year amid the city’s most serious political crisis for decades.
Jimmy Lai, the 71-year-old founder of Next Media, which publishes the popular, anti-government Apple Daily newspaper, was picked up by police on Friday morning for taking part in a march banned by police on 31 August, according to public broadcaster RTHK.
Lai, a self-made millionaire who is an outspoken critic of Beijing and a major financial patron of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement, was picked up by police at his house, Cable TV and TVB News reported.
Lee Cheuk-yan, 63, the vice-chairman of the Labour Party, was also taken away by police from his home early Friday morning for taking part in the march. The party condemned the arrest as a suppression of Hong Kong people’s rights to peaceful protest.
Yeung Sum, 72, a former chairman of the Democracy Party, was also taken away by police on Friday morning, the Chinese language Ming Pao newspaper reported.
The men were arrested on suspicion of taking part in an illegal assembly, reports said. Observers say their arrests indicate that the Hong Kong government is determined to step up revenge on influential pro-democracy figures who they see as having a leading role in the months-long anti-government movement, which posed the most severe political crisis for the Beijing and Hong Kong authorities in decades.
Hundreds of thousands of protesters defied a police ban on a march on 31 August organised by Civil Human Rights Front, a group which has organised mass protests that attracted up to two million people during the political crisis prompted by a controversial extradition law which started in June last year.
During themarch, the crowds occupied major thoroughfares and protesters also besieged the government’s headquarters amid clashes with riot police. Protests and clashes later spread across the harbour to Kowloon and a group of riot police officers stormed a train at the underground Prince Edward Station, attacking demonstrators and commuters inside with batons and pepper-spray.
The event gave rise to rumours of covered-up deaths and protesters set up shrines outside the station for months and still hold small-scale protests to commemorate the attack every month.
Pro-democracy lawmaker Andrew Wan told reporters the march was not organised by the three men and their arrests would have “a chilling effect” in society.
A Hong Kong police spokesman confirmed the arrests of the three men on Friday. Without giving their names, he said the three had been charged for participating in an unauthorised assembly on August 31 last year and would be required to appear in court in May. He said Lai is also charged with criminal intimidation for an offence on June 4, 2017. Lai reportedly swore at a journalist at the pro-Beijing Oriental Daily on the occasion.
The arrests come after a period of relative calm in the Asian financial hub following months of intense anti-government protests.
Authorities in Hong Kong have arrested more than 7,000 people for their involvement in the protests, many on charges of rioting that can carry jail terms of up to 10 years. It is unclear how many are still in custody.
Public anger has grown over the months due to perceptions of China tightening its grip over the city. Beijing denies meddling and blames the West for fomenting unrest.
Lai was previously arrested in 2014 for refusing to leave a key pro-democracy protest site in the centre of the city. Following his arrest he resigned as editor in chief of Apple Daily. He has also come under scrutiny from Hong Kong’s anti-graft agency when they raided his home in 2014.
Albert Ho, a solicitor and high-profile pro-democracy politician in Hong Kong, said the arrests were part of “continued repression against Hong Kong”.
“I think I will be next,” he said. “Carrie Lam is perpetrating a plan to try to exert pressure in Hong Kong to repress the opposition, to silence.”
The arrests came days after Gui Minhai, a Hong Kong bookseller, was sentenced to 10 years in prison in China. On Thursday the United States demanded that Beijing immediately free him.
Gui, a Swedish citizen who was known for publishing salacious titles about China’s political leaders, was snatched while on a train to Beijing in February 2018 and this week sentenced on charges of illegally providing intelligence abroad.