• The Star Staff

Hong Kong police block protests over delayed election

By Austin Ramzy and Tiffany May

Thousands of police officers in riot gear filled the streets of Hong Kong on Sunday, stifling efforts to protest the postponement of legislative elections and China’s imposition of a national security law that gives authorities sweeping new powers to pursue critics.

A large police presence was seen across the Kowloon Peninsula, where some activists had called for a march on the day the elections were initially scheduled to take place. Protesters gathered despite the risk of arrests and fines under social distancing rules that prohibit mass gatherings. Occasional pro-democracy chants broke out as small groups wound through side streets, but the number of demonstrators remained small compared with the huge crowds that gathered last year.

Officers stopped and searched several people and arrested 289 who were suspected of unlawful assembly and other charges, according to police statements. One person was arrested under the National Security Law after chanting a pro-independence slogan, police said.

Activists Figo Chan, Leung Kwok-hung and Raphael Wong of the League of Social Democrats, a leftist pro-democracy group, were among those arrested, according to a post on Chan’s Facebook page. A photographer for a digital news outlet was taken away in a police vehicle, according to his employer, Truth Media Hong Kong.

Video footage captured by reporters showed riot police officers grabbing a girl and pinning her on the ground when she attempted to run away. Police said that officers had used minimum force while chasing the 12-year-old girl and that she was issued a ticket for social distancing violations.

A bus driver who honked while driving past police officers was arrested on suspicion of dangerous driving, according to an officer filming livestream footage for the police Facebook account. Other videos showed plainclothes officers deploying pepper spray at close range and dragging a man across asphalt and sidewalks before putting him in handcuffs.

Police Sunday also arrested an activist accused of “uttering seditious words,” under a little-used, colonial-era sedition law. The activist, Tam Tak-chi, a leading figure in the political group People Power, had organized street booths at which he handed out face masks and delivered criticisms of the government through a loudspeaker.

“Most of the time, the words he uses are stirring up hatred and contempt for the government and also raising the societal discontent among the Hong Kong people,” said Li Kwai-wah, a senior police superintendent.

He said that Tam had set up street booths on 29 occasions between June and August, framing them as “anti-epidemic health talks.”

Tam’s supporters said his arrest was a sign of shrinking freedom of speech in Hong Kong and of the government’s increasing targeting of dissent. James To, a pro-democracy lawmaker, said that Tam’s arrest was a violation of his right to free speech.

“The government’s violations of civil rights, including the aforementioned arrest, is the reason for the people’s discontent and even hatred,” To wrote in a statement, adding that the government was imitating the methods of authoritarian governments when cracking down on critics and watchdogs.

Li, who heads the national security department within the police force, said that the force had initially considered arresting Tam under a sweeping security law but in consultations with the Department of Justice decided that a colonial-era law against “seditious intent” was more appropriate. Li added that officers within the national security branch could use laws other than the new security law when making arrests.

He added that the unapproved gathering of protesters Sunday afternoon would heighten the risk for transmissions of the coronavirus.

“Why all of a sudden do so many people have to gather and increase the risk for others?” he said. “The crowds are there. Our police officers are there. Our reporters are there. So out of the blue, there will be a lot of people and our social distance will shrink.”

“If you organize, incite or participate in such gatherings, you are breaking the law and will be arrested,” he added.

The legislative election was postponed for one year because of the coronavirus pandemic, but many in the pro-democracy camp accused the government of stalling to avoid the defeat of establishment candidates.

While Hong Kong has seen an increase in coronavirus cases over the past month, that wave has largely been brought under control. The city announced 21 new cases Sunday, after more than a week of daily totals in the single or low double digits.

The Hong Kong government, with the aid of a team from mainland China, began a universal testing program last week that it said was necessary to break hidden chains of virus transmission. Some activists and health care workers urged residents to boycott the plan, calling it a waste of resources motivated by a political desire to burnish the image of China’s central government.

Health officials said Thursday that six positive cases had been found in the first batch of 128,000 tested in the program, including four people with previously confirmed cases who were treated in hospitals. Five more cases detected through the program were announced Sunday. About 1 million people in the city of 7.5 million have registered for tests.

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