Police in Hong Kong on Monday arrested two pro-democracy lawmakers who staged a loud protest in the city's Legislative Council (LegCo) last June, the latest in a string of prosecutions of prominent opposition figures.
Democratic Party lawmakers Andrew Wan and Lam Cheuk-ting were called to police headquarters on Monday, where they were arrested and charged with "obstructing security guards" at a LegCo meeting in June.
The pair had been loudly protesting against mainland Chinese police being part of an immigration checkpoint at Hong Kong's high-speed rail terminus, a move which has since gone ahead, with mainland Chinese law applying for the first time within Hong Kong city limits since the 1997 handover.
Both were accused of resisting attempts by the security guards to remove them from the chamber. Wan was also charged with common assault, the least serious form of assault charge possible.
Both men, who were accompanied by a crowd of supporters, were released on bail and will appear again in court on Tuesday.
Outside, their supporters shouted: "No regrets over reasonable protest!" and "Oppose political suppression!"
Lam told reporters that such charges—and possibly even jail—now appear to be an occupational hazard of serving in the city's legislature.
He accused chief executive Carrie Lam of trying to suppress the voice of the opposition camp in Hong Kong, at the behest of the ruling Chinese Communist Party in Beijing, and dismissed the charges against the pair as "ridiculous."
"Anyone can see very clearly from online video footage that we didn't hit anybody, nor did we throw anything," Lam said. "This was a purely verbal protest, and we never left our seats."
"We were escorted from the chamber by security guards within a few minutes, and now we face criminal charges," he said. "It's shocking that things have gotten this ridiculous in Hong Kong."
Wan said the criminalization of such protests, which have become common in LegCo since the pan-democratic camp lost its veto power following the removal of six pan-democrats after the National People's Congress standing committee ruled their oaths of allegiance invalid, would have far-reaching consequences.
"This is a line that can't be crossed, otherwise, whenever pan-democrats try to use any kind of peaceful or reasonable means to oppose unreasonable government policies, or to speak on behalf of the people, they will run into this obstacle," Wan said.
"We can't give way on this, and so I and Lam Cheuk-ting will fight this all the way, with every last bit of our energy, to protect the right to freedom of expression of LegCo [members] and the people of Hong Kong," he said.
Freedoms under fire
Last week, student leader and opposition activist Joshua Wong warned that political prosecutions against protesters "have become the new norm" in Hong Kong.
British MPs have condemned the use of criminal charges to intimidate and silence pro-democracy figures, noting that more than 100 pro-democracy protesters have been charged, and many jailed, on the basis of common law charges which curtail freedom of expression and have been criticized by the United Nations Human Rights Committee.
Hong Kong was promised the continuation of its traditional freedoms of speech and association by a mini-constitution drafted by U.K. and Chinese officials ahead of the 1997 handover to Chinese rule.
But those freedoms are now being eroded in the wake of repeated interventions in the city’s political life by Beijing, according to overseas governments and human rights organizations.
Nine prominent figures in Hong Kong's 2014 Occupy Central pro-democracy movement are currently on trial on public order charges, including the three activists who initiated the movement—law professor Benny Tai, retired sociology professor Chan Kin-man, and reverend Chu Yiu-ming.
The activists said in their defense that the chief purpose of Occupy Central, also known as the Umbrella movement, was to campaign for fully democratic elections using civil disobedience tactics.
The trial comes after student leaders Joshua Wong, Nathan Law, and Alex Chow were found guilty of public order offenses in July 2017 for their role in the occupation of a cordoned-off public space at the start of the movement.
Wong, who was recently awarded the 2018 Lantos Human Rights Prize but was unable to collect it in person, remains under an effective travel ban pending a separate hearing on "contempt of court" charges scheduled for April.
Reported by Lee Wang-yam for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Hwang Chun-mei for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.