Hong Kong police on Wednesday arrested six people including a former labor leader on suspicion of “sedition” under a colonial-era law, as the city’s security chief — who is widely seen as Beijing’s preferred candidate — resigned to run for chief executive.
Police said they had arrested four men and two women aged 32 to 67 on suspicion of “conducting acts with seditious intent.”
Media reports said one of those arrested was Leo Tang, a former vice president of the now-disbanded Confederation of Trade Unions (CTU).
The arrests were in connection with “nuisances” allegedly caused by the six as they attended court hearings between December 2021 and January 2022. Police said their actions had “severely affected jurisdictional dignity and court operations.”
Police also searched the homes of the arrestees and seized various items in connection with the case.
This arrests mark the first time that someone sitting in the public gallery of a Hong Kong court has been arrested for “actions with seditious intent,” a charge that carries a maximum sentence of two years’ imprisonment.
The police statement said the six are accused of “incitement to hatred, contempt or betrayal of Hong Kong’s judiciary.”
Previously, judges have responded to shouting and clapping from the public gallery by ignoring it or by ordering those responsible to leave the court.
Any behavior in court that could distract judges from hearing evidence or making a judgement could be regarded as “an obstacle to the work of the court,” Hong Kong chief justice Andrew Cheung said in January.
He said at the time that such incidents should be handled on a case-by-case basis by the judge concerned.
Courtroom protests and vocal support for defendants has become increasingly common as Hong Kong continues with a citywide crackdown on public dissent and political opposition under a draconian national security law imposed on the city by the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) from July 1, 2020.
In January 2018, supporters at the trial of pro-independence politician Edward Leung were ordered to leave the courtroom and to view the remainder of the trial via a video screen in the lobby.
The arrests came as chief secretary John Lee — second-in-command to chief executive Carrie Lam — resigned from his post and announced he will run in an “election” for the city’s top job that is tightly controlled by Beijing.
The successful candidate will be chosen on May 8 by a 1,500-strong Election Committee whose members have been hand-picked by Beijing.
The arrests came after two U.K. Supreme Court judges resigned from Hong Kong’s Court of Final Appeal (CFA) last month, citing a recent crackdown on dissent under a draconian national security law imposed on the city by Beijing.
Non-permanent CFA judges Lord Reed and Lord Hodge had sat on the court “for many years” under an agreement governing the 1997 handover of Hong Kong to Chinese rule, but Lam’s administration had “departed from values of political freedom, and freedom of expression,” Reed said in a statement.
The national security law ushered in a citywide crackdown on public dissent and criticism of the authorities that has seen several senior journalists, pro-democracy media magnate Jimmy Lai and 47 former lawmakers and democracy activists charged with offenses from “collusion with a foreign power” to “subversion.”
Extracts from Lai’s prison letters published by the Index on Censorship in late March 2022 quoted Lai as saying that “the muted anger of the Hong Kong people is not going away.”
“This barbaric suppression [and] intimidation works,” Lai wrote. “Hong Kong people are all quieted down. But the muted anger they have is not going away. Even those emigrating will have it forever. Many people are emigrating or planning to.”
“The more barbaric [the] treatment of Hong Kong people, [the] greater is their anger, and power of their potential resistance; [the] greater is the distrust of Beijing, of Hong Kong, [the] stricter is their rule to control,” Lai wrote.
“The vicious circle of suppression-anger-and-distrust eventually will turn Hong Kong into a prison, a cage, like Xinjiang.”
Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.