Monday marked a day of arrests in Hong Kong as law enforcement officers detained prominent pro-democracy media mogul Jimmy Lai along with at least nine others for allegedly violating the city’s national security law.
Lai and his newspaper, Apple Daily, has long had a reputation for being a strong critic of the Hong Kong government and Chinese leadership. Lai and his paper have given extensive coverage and support to the anti-government movements in the city.
Officers arrived at Lai’s mansion at 7 a.m., handcuffing him and escorting out. The arrests of two of Lai’s sons, who are not involved in his media business, and four executives of Next Digital, the parent company of Lai’s newspaper Apple Daily, followed shortly after.
A team of about 200 officers also conducted a nearly nine hour-long raid at the Apple Daily headquarters. In an event captured on livestream by employees, the police were seen to be rifling through desks and carrying away boxes filled with documents and computer hardware.
An editor working for the newspaper can be seen in the video questioning the police about the exact boundaries of the area they intended to search. He was subsequently shoved away by shouting police officers. “Remember his face,” said an inspector, pointing his index finger at the editor. “If he still behaves like this, give him a warning. And if he doesn’t listen to the warning, arrest him.”
In a separate livestream, officers in plain clothes were spotted loading crates of electronic devices seized from a restaurant owned by one of Lai’s sons into private vehicles. The officers did not respond when questioned by reporters about whether they were working with the national security division or whether they had search warrants for the property.
The police sweep sparked concerns that Hong Kong’s independent and outspoken press establishments would be the new targets of a broader crackdown on democracy advocates.
“The police really came in a big way,” said Keith Richburg, the director of the University of Hong Kong’s school of journalism. “It just gives the lie to any assurances that the national security law would just target a few people involved in rioting. It’s put a chilling effect over everything here.”
Despite these fears, officers maintained that their actions did not disrupt or pry into the work of journalists who were not involved in their investigations. They also said that the arrested individuals were not being charged for actions related to their work in the media.
According to a police statement, Lai was arrested “for collusion with a foreign country, uttering seditious words and conspiracy to defraud.”
Although the specific acts that Lai was arrested for remains unclear, he has previously traveled to the United States to meet with officials that include Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and House speaker Nancy Pelosi. However, the law states that the new security legislation will not be used retroactively to target events that happened before its enactment in late June.
Steve Li Kwai-wah, the senior superintendent from the Hong Kong police force’s national security unit, said that a month-long investigation had revealed that three of the arrested individuals were suspected of being part of a group that called for foreign countries to impose sanctions on Hong Kong and that several others had allegedly helped them channel money through overseas bank accounts. He did not name those suspected of the crimes.
A spokesperson for the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office in Beijing said it “resolutely backed” the detainment of Lai and his associates, calling them a “faction that subverts China and stir chaos in Hong Kong.”
“He brags about fighting for America arrogantly, taking part to plan, organise and initiate a raft of unlawful resistance movements, using his media to create and spread rumours, inciting and supporting violence, and providing funds for those advocating [Hong Kong independence],” said the spokesman.
The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Hong Kong said that Monday’s arrests were “a direct assault on Hong Kong’s press freedom and signal a dark new phase in the erosion of the city’s global reputation.”
“Today’s events raise worries that such actions are being used to erase basic freedoms in Hong Kong,” they wrote in a statement.
Meanwhile, prominent activist Agnes Chow Ting and other activists and journalists for the British network ITV News were also arrested on Monday. Sources say that they were suspected of violating the national security law for inciting secession.
“I’m a bit scared,” wrote Chow in a Facebook post on Sunday, pointing out that strange men had been staking out her house in shifts. “But I believe in what I’m doing.”
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