HONG KONG (AP) – Hong Kong police made their first arrests under a new national security law imposed by China’s central government, arresting at least seven people suspected of violating the legislation during rotests yesterday.
At least two people were arrested for carrying flags and signs calling for Hong Kong’s independence.
One man with a Hong Kong independence flag was arrested at a protest in the city’s Causeway Bay shopping district after police issued multiple warnings to the crowd that they might be in violation of the law, according to a police statement on Twitter.
Police later arrested another woman for holding up a sign displaying the British flag and calling for Hong Kong’s independence. Further details were not immediately available.
Hong Kong police said on Facebook that they had arrested more than 180 people on various charges, including unlawful assembly, possession of weapons and violating the national security law.
The law makes secessionist, subversive, or terrorist activities illegal, as well as foreign intervention in the city’s internal affairs. Any person taking part in secessionist activities, such as shouting slogans or holding up banners and flags calling for the city’s independence, is violating the law regardless of whether violence is used.
The arrests come less than 24 hours after the law was imposed by China following last year’s anti-government protests in the semi-autonomous territory. The law took effect on Tuesday at 11pm. The most serious offenders, such as those deemed to be masterminds behind the crimes, could receive a maximum punishment of life imprisonment. Lesser offenders could receive jail terms of up to three years, short-term detention or restriction.
Hong Kong’s leader strongly endorsed the new law in a speech marking yesterday’s 23rd anniversary of the handover of the territory — officially called the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) — from British colonial rule.
“The enactment of the national law is regarded as the most significant development in the relationship between the central authorities and the HKSAR since Hong Kong’s return to the motherland,” Chief Executive Carrie Lam said in a speech, following a flag-hoisting ceremony and the playing of China’s national anthem.
“It is also an essential and timely decision for restoring stability in Hong Kong,” she said.
A pro-democracy political party, The League of Social Democrats, organised a protest march during the flag-hoisting ceremony. About a dozen participants chanted slogans echoing demands from protesters last year for political reform and an investigation into accusations of police abuse.
The law’s passage on Tuesday further blurs the distinction between the legal systems of Hong Kong, which maintained aspects of British law after the 1997 handover, and the mainland’s Communist Party system. Critics said the law effectively ends the “one country, two systems” framework under which Hong Kong was promised a high degree of autonomy.
The law directly targets some of the actions of anti-government protesters last year, which included attacks on government offices and police stations, damage to subway stations and the shutdown of the city’s international airport.
Acts of vandalism against government facilities or public transit can be prosecuted as subversion or terrorism, while anyone taking part in activities deemed secessionist would also be in violation of the law.
Pro-democracy lawmaker Claudia Mo said in a news conference that the security legislation does not abide by the rule of law and is a dire warning to the free press.
“This would tell you that they want not just to get us, but to intimidate us into inaction, into a catatonic state,” Mo said.
Hong Kong’s police force said they would consider as illegal any flag or banner raised by protesters deemed to promote Hong Kong’s separation from China.
Police will use a new purple flag to warn protesters if they display banners or shout slogans that may constitute a crime under the law.
Concerns have also been raised over the fate of key opposition figures, some of whom have already been charged for taking part in protests, as well as the disqualification of candidates for Legislative Council elections scheduled for September.
In Beijing, Executive Deputy Director of the Cabinet’s Hong Kong affairs office Zhang Xiaoming said Hong Kong people are allowed to criticise the ruling Communist Party but cannot turn those complaints “into actions”.
“What happened recently in Hong Kong has shown a deviation from the right track of the ‘one country, two systems’ (framework),” Zhang told reporters yesterday.
“To some extent, we made this law in order to correct the deviation … to pull it closer to ‘one-country’.”
Schools, social groups, media outlets, websites and others will be monitored and their national security awareness will be raised, according to the law, while the central government will have authority over the activities of foreign non-governmental organisations and media outlets in Hong Kong.
The law said central government bodies in Hong Kong will take over in “complicated cases” and when there is a serious threat to national security. Local authorities are barred from interfering with central government bodies operating in Hong Kong while they are carrying out their duties.
Security legislation was mandated under Hong Kong’s local constitution, but an earlier attempt to pass it in the city’s legislative body in 2003 was shelved because of massive public opposition.
Beijing finally decided to circumvent the Hong Kong legislature and have the law passed on Tuesday by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, China’s rubber- stamp Parliament.
Chinese President Xi Jinping signed a presidential order putting the law into effect, and it has been added to the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s constitution.
The law’s passage comes after Hong Kong’s legislature in early June approved a bill making it illegal to insult the Chinese national anthem.