Concerns are growing that the semi-autonomous city’s freedoms are under threat from Beijing, fuelling calls from some groups for greater autonomy or even a complete split from China.
Pro-independence activists Yau Wai-ching and Baggio Leung were arrested and charged Wednesday over causing chaos in the legislature after being barred from taking up their seats as lawmakers last year.
And last month nine pro-democracy activists – including student protesters and lawmakers – were charged for their roles in mass 2014 pro-democracy Umbrella Movement rallies.
The spate of arrests come ahead of an expected visit by China’s President Xi Jinping to mark the 20th anniversary of the handover of the city by Britain back to China in 1997 on Jul 1.
“I believe the police have set out to arrest all street activists so they won’t dare to protest when Xi Jinping visits,” pro-democracy leader Joshua Wong told AFP.
Nine protesters were arrested Thursday over their participation in a rally in November against China’s decision to intervene in the row over whether to disqualify Yau and Baggio.
That protest outside China’s liaison office in Hong Kong saw scuffles as demonstrators charged barriers and police used pepper spray to drive them back.
The rally was triggered after Beijing announced it would make a special interpretation of Hong Kong’s constitution to determine whether Yau and Baggio should be prevented from taking up their seats after staging an anti-China protest during their oath-taking.
Beijing’s final ruling, two days after the rally, effectively ensured the pair were barred.
Two of those arrested Thursday belong to new pro-democracy party Demosisto, co-founded by student leader Wong.
Others included members of the long-standing pro-democracy party League of Social Democrats (LSD), as well as student or former student protesters.
The charges include illegal assembly, obstructing a police officer and assaulting a police officer, activists said.
Police were unable to immediately confirm the arrests and charges.
All nine protesters emerged from Hong Kong’s Western police station Thursday afternoon and said they had been charged and released on bail.
LSD chairman Avery Ng, who was charged with inciting others to cause disorder in public, said campaigners would “continue to voice our discontent and our anger towards the Communist Party and the Hong Kong government”.
Rights group Amnesty International criticised the arrests saying they were another example of “vague charges” against prominent activists.
The move smacked of an “orchestrated and retaliatory campaign” against pro-democracy advocates, said Mabel Au, director of Amnesty International Hong Kong.
Human Rights Watch warned authorities’ “heavy-handed” approach could backfire, pointing to 2014’s mass protests, prompted by restrictions imposed by Beijing on fully free leadership elections.
In an annual report on the city released Thursday, the European Union called for democratic political reform in Hong Kong, saying that it had become “more polarised” in 2016.
The reform process stalled after a Beijing-backed proposal to allow free leadership elections but restrict candidates sparked the 2014 rallies.
“The EU encourages Hong Kong and China’s central government to resume electoral reform … to reach agreement on an election system that is democratic, fair, open and transparent,” the report said.