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Cardinal Zen arrest sparks international outcry from governments, overseas activists

Britain on Thursday hit out at the arrest by Hong Kong’s national security police of five pro-democracy figures including 90-year-old retired bishop Cardinal Joseph Zen, amid calls for Magnitsky-style sanctions on officials responsible for the ongoing crackdown on public dissent.

“The Hong Kong authorities’ decision to target leading pro-democracy figures, including Cardinal Zen, Margaret Ng, Hui Po-keung and Denise Ho, under the national security law is unacceptable,” minister for Europe and North America told the House of Commons on Thursday.

“We continue to make clear to mainland China and to Hong Kong authorities our strong opposition to the national security law, which is being used to curtail freedom, punish dissent and shrink the space for opposition, free press and civil society,” he said.

Former ruling Conservative Party leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith called on the government to sanction Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam, chief executive-elect and former security chief John Lee, as well as Chinese Communist Party (CCP) official in charge of implementing a draconian national security law in Hong Kong Luo Huining and former police chief Chris Tang, among others.

“Not one of those people has been sanctioned by the U.K. government,” Duncan Smith said. “It is time to step up and make our position very clear.”

Cleverly said the government was willing to listen to calls for “not just words but actions.”

Meanwhile, the Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong said it was “extremely concerned” over Zen’s arrest.

“The Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong is extremely concerned about the condition and safety of Cardinal Joseph Zen and we are offering our special prayers for him,” it said in a statement on its website. “We urge the Hong Kong Police and the judicial authorities to handle Cardinal Zen’s case in accordance with justice.”

In Washington, State Department spokesman Ned Price said the recent arrests of Cardinal Zen, former pro-democracy lawmaker and barrister Margaret Ng, scholar Hui Po-keung and Cantopop star Denise Ho showed that the Hong Kong authorities “will pursue all means necessary to stifle dissent and undercut protected rights and freedoms.”

Zen, Ng, Hui and Ho served as trustees of the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund, which helped thousands of arrested Hong Kong democracy protesters access funds for medical aid, legal advice, psychological counseling, and emergency financial relief, he said.

“We call for the immediate release of those who remain in custody and continue to stand with people in Hong Kong,” Price said in a May 11 statement.

In addition to the above four, jailed former pro-democracy lawmaker Cyd Ho, another trustee currently on remand awaiting trial on a separate charge, was also arrested on the same charge of “conspiracy to collude with foreign powers” on Thursday.

Canadian foreign minister Melanie Joly has called the arrests “deeply troubling.” Denise Ho holds a Canadian passport.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said he was following the arrests with “great concern,” while Human Rights Watch called it a “shocking new low for Hong Kong.”

The Vatican has said it is following the case closely.

National Security ‘offenses’

China hit back at the international outcry over the arrests on Thursday, saying that international criticism was “slandering and smearing legitimate law enforcement action by the Hong Kong police against the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund.”

“Rights and freedoms cannot be used as a shield for illegal activities in Hong Kong,” the foreign ministry’s Hong Kong office said in a statement.

“We urge external forces trying to intervene to cease this clumsy political performance immediately,” it said, adding that the arrestees are suspected of offenses under the national security law “of a serious nature.”

Zen and the other arrestees were released on bail late on Wednesday.

More than 180 Hongkongers have been arrested to date under the law, including dozens of former opposition politicians and democracy activists, and several senior media figures including Apple Daily founder Jimmy Lai.

Cardinal Zen, 90, has long been an outspoken supporter of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement and a critic of the CCP’s suppression of religious freedom.

U.S.-based democracy campaigner Samuel Chu said the fact that Zen was arrested shortly after the selection of one-horse candidate and former security chief John Lee showed that Beijing is celebrating its new-found control over every aspect of life in Hong Kong.

Chu described the national security law — which applies to actions and speech anywhere in the world — as an “evil law” that is now the paramount political principle in Hong Kong.

“It doesn’t matter who is the chief executive or who is in charge of the different government departments,” Chu said. “As long as there is a national security law, they will arrest whoever they want, and no one in the world is safe.”

Taiwan human rights activist Shih Yi-hsiang said the law is in violation of international human rights covenants.

“All of our brothers and sisters in Hong Kong who have been arrested … are innocent,” Shih told RFA. “Who is to blame? The CCP regime … and the puppet chief executive John Lee.”

Rwei-ren Wu, an associate researcher at the Institute of Taiwan History of the Academia Sinica, called on President Tsai Ing-wen to expedite a clear path to political asylum for Hongkongers fleeing political oppression in their home city.

Chiu Chui-cheng, spokesman for Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council, condemned “any evil action that suppresses human rights and freedoms in the name of national security.”

Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.