Re-Arrest Likely for Most Hong Kong Dissidents

Detainees expected to be charged under national security law

Most of the 53 people arrested in Hong Kong on January 6 are likely to be re-arrested and charged under the National Security Law, with some expected to be sentenced to prison, according to a well-wired Hong Kong-based risk consultant. All have had their passports seized to prevent them from leaving the territory.

Hong Kong Police confirmed on January 8 that 52 of the 53 people who were arrested on January 6 were released on bail. The arrests have raised consternation among western capitals, particularly the United States and the United Kingdom, as well as human rights and press organizations and the United Nations Human Rights Office.

“We are deeply concerned about the arrests on Wednesday of 53 political activists, academics, former legislators, current district councilors, and lawyers,” said Liz Throssell, spokeswoman for the UN Human Rights Office, in a public statement on January 7.

“Hong Kong authorities’ claims that discussing candidates and advocating for government action is somehow subversive is ludicrous,” said Maya Wang, senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch. “It’s increasingly clear that Beijing’s commitment to Hong Kong’s ‘high degree of autonomy’ isn’t worth the paper it’s written on.”

Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific Regional Director Yamini Mishra called the arrests “the starkest demonstration yet of how the national security law has been weaponized to punish anyone who dares to challenge the establishment. This ruthless legislation gives the Beijing and Hong Kong authorities free rein to crush any dissenting views and puts all government critics at risk of imprisonment,” adding that the arrests “also illustrate how the broad scope of the law allows it to be applied in circumstances that do not qualify as genuine threats to national security.”

So far, no charges have been filed against the 53. Although the 52 have been freed without charges, most will be arrested again, the risk consultant predicted. “They are not yet charged but they will be charged ultimately. Jimmy Lai was initially detained without charges under the National Security Law, but later charged and re-arrested.”

Lai, the proprietor of the popular anti-Beijing newspaper Apple Daily, was detained for three weeks last December for fraud and violating the National Security Act, which Beijing implemented in Hong Kong on June 30. The Hong Kong tycoon was freed on bail on December 23, 2020, but on December 31, 2020, three Hong Kong judges revoked his bail and returned him to prison. Under the draconian security law, no suspect shall be granted bail unless the judge believes the suspect will not continue to endanger national security.

Some of the 53 detainees will remain under custody until their hearing in court after they are re-arrested, because bail is usually not granted under the security law, the risk consultant predicted. After the court hearings, some of them will be sentenced to prison, he added. “One of them will definitely be Benny Tai.”

Tai, a legal scholar and pro-democracy activist, is the only person named among the 53 detainees in a statement by a spokesman of the Hong Kong Liaison Office, which suggests the Chinese government is probably singling him out as a prime target.

On January 6, the spokesman of the Liaison Office, Beijing’s representative agency in Hong Kong, said Hong Kong police had arrested the 53 including Tai “according to the law.” The spokesman alleged some of those arrested aimed to “paralyze the Hong Kong government.”.

“We believe Hong Kong people at large can see the dangers posed to Hong Kong society and the sinister intentions by people like Benny Tai,” the Liaison Office spokesman said.

In April last year, Tai wrote an article on “10 steps to mutual destruction,” which includes the objective of pro-democracy politicians winning most of the seats in the Legislative Council (LegCo) elections. The next step was for the pro-democracy lawmakers to block the passing of the budget, which was designed to cause Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor to resign. However, the LegCo election was postponed on the pretext of the continuing Covid-19 pandemic. Critics believe the postponement was a ploy to avoid another humiliation at the ballot box.

A fraction of the 53 detainees have objected to Tai’s 10 steps, so they will probably not be charged, the risk consultant clarified.

In his statement on January 6, the Liaison Office spokesman hinted that some of the 53 detainees will be given more lenient treatment than others. The spokesman said, “We will resolutely separate those who plan to illegally paralyze the Hong Kong government from the ordinary people who were misled into participating in the so-called primary elections (for LegCo).”

The 52 detainees who were freed include John Clancey, an American human rights lawyer. Clancey works for the Hong Kong law firm Ho Tse Wai & Partners and is also the treasurer of “Power for Democracy,” a local pro-democracy political group. The release of a US citizen avoids a potential diplomatic incident between Beijing and Washington amidst dire relations between the superpowers.

The only person among the 53 detainees who has not been released is Wu Chi-wai, a former chairman of the Democratic Party, a local pro-democracy party. On January 8, a Hong Kong court revoked bail for Wu after he was found to have failed to surrender his British National (Overseas) passport in defiance of a court order.

The scale of the arrests, the largest in decades in Hong Kong, has unnerved even some pro-Beijing figures in the Asian financial hub. On his Facebook on January 6, Michael Tien, a pro-Beijing lawmaker, urged the police to explain more clearly what “unlawful means” the arrestees had adopted, otherwise, Hong Kong’s Department of Justice has to explain the arrests. If no explanation is forthcoming from the authorities and these detainees are tried in court, it may further hurt the credibility of the Hong Kong administration, Tien warned.

Grenville Cross, a former Hong Kong director of public prosecutions and supporter of the National Security Law, was quoted in media reports saying a higher evidential threshold needs to be met if those arrested are to be charged and taken to court.

More arrests

Nonetheless, arrests continue in the city. On January 8, Hong Kong Police confirmed to Chinese state news agency Xinhua that the National Security Department of Hong Kong Police has arrested Joshua Wong and Tam Tak-chi on January 7. The pair were arrested for suspected subversion under the National Security Law. Xinhua described Wong as an advocate of Hong Kong independence and Tam as an opposition politician.

Even before his arrest, the 47-year old Tam was scheduled to face trial in May on three cases of sedition, to be heard by a judge designated for hearing cases under the security law. Tam, who is vice chairman of People Power, a local pro-democracy coalition, is the first person to be charged in Hong Kong for sedition since the territory’s handover to China in 1997.

The 24-year old Wong was one of the leaders of the Occupy Central protest in Hong Kong in 2014. Wong was imprisoned three times in 2017, 2019, and December 2020 when he was sentenced to 13.5 months in prison for organizing and participating in the protest in Hong Kong in 2019. While serving the 13.5-month prison sentence, Wong was arrested on a new charge of violating the security law.

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