Issues about freedom in Hong Kong after 15 democracy-friendly activists have been arrested

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People hold up signs and a cellphone as they gather in the West Kowloon Law Courts building to show their support to 96 anti-government protesters arrested days ago in Hong Kong, China on October 2, 2019.(Photo: REUTERS / Athit Perawongmetha)

The arrest of 15 of Hong Kong's best-known democracy-friendly activists has been condemned by the United Kingdom and the United States.

Martin Lee, founder of the Democratic Party, media magnate Jimmy Lai and lawyer Margaret Ng were among those arrested for illegal assembly.

The last British governor of Hong Kong, Lord Patten, accused China of taking advantage of the coronavirus pandemic to tighten the special administrative region.

"With the world's attention focused on the horrific Covid-19 epidemic, Beijing and its submissive government in Hong Kong have taken another step to bury a country and two systems," he said.

"The arrest of some of the most respected leaders over decades of the Hong Kong campaign for democracy and the rule of law is an unprecedented attack on the values ‚Äč‚Äčthat have sustained Hong Kong's way of life for years."

He said that picking out the activists does not reflect the rule of law.

"This is what authoritarian governments are doing. It is becoming clear week by week and day by day that Beijing is determined to throttle Hong Kong," he continued.

"The world should clarify how this further undermines the remaining trust that we still have in China's communist dictatorship."

Former British Foreign Secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind described the arrests as a "really terrible attack" on Hong Kong's freedom and autonomy.

"The international community has to speak very clearly to show Beijing that these arrests are unacceptable and are viewed not only as an attack on Hong Kong's freedoms but also on the international order itself," he said.

Crossbench Christian peer Lord Alton has urged Britain to "urgently protest" the Chinese government.

"These arrests are a classic example of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) opportunism – they take the opportunity to distract the Covid-19 pandemic as a moment of strike," he said.

"This deadly totalitarian virus is as deadly as Covid, and to fight it, the world must now be united with the Hong Kong democrats in defending liberal and democratic values."

Hong Kongers are increasingly concerned about the future of the territory. When the Hong Kong government tried last year to pass an extradition law that would have sent criminals to the mainland for trial, hundreds of thousands took to the streets in months of protests.

Those arrested on Saturday were accused of having organized and attended illegal gatherings on August 18 and October 1 and 20 last year.

They are scheduled to appear in court on May 18.

The arrests take place days after Beijing officials claimed that interference in Hong Kong's affairs was not against local law.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has condemned the arrest of pro-democracy supporters.

"Beijing and its Hong Kong representatives continue to take measures that are inconsistent with the commitments made under the Sino-British Joint Declaration, including transparency, the rule of law and guarantees that Hong Kong will continue to enjoy a high degree of autonomy." he said.

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