HONG KONG (AP) — Hong Kong police arrested 53 former lawmakers and democracy proponents Wednesday for allegedly violating the new national security law by participating in unofficial election primaries for the territory's legislature last year.
The mass arrests were the largest move against Hong Kong's democracy movement since the law was imposed by Beijing last June to quell dissent in the semi-autonomous territory.
"The operation today targets the active elements who are suspected to be involved in the crime of overthrowing, or interfering (in) ... the Hong Kong government's legal execution of duties," Hong Kong's security minister, John Lee, said at a news conference.
He said those arrested were suspected of trying to paralyze the government by attempting to gain a majority in the legislature to create a situation in which the chief executive had to resign and the government would stop functioning.
A video on former lawmaker Lam Cheuk-ting's Facebook page showed police arriving at his home and telling him he was "suspected of violating the national security law, subverting state power." Police told those recording the video to stop or risk arrest.
The legislative election that would have followed the unofficial primaries was postponed by a year by Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, who cited the public health risks during the coronavirus pandemic. Mass resignations and disqualifications of pro-democracy lawmakers have left the legislature largely a pro-Beijing body.
Lee said the police would not target those who voted in the unofficial primaries, which were held in July and attracted more than 600,000 voters even though pro-Beijing lawmakers and politicians had warned the event could breach the security law.
All of the pro-democracy candidates in the unofficial primaries were arrested, apart from a few who had fled the territory, according to reports by the South China Morning Post, online platform Now News and political groups.
At least seven members of Hong Kong's Democratic Party — the city's largest opposition party — were arrested, including former party chairman Wu Chi-wai. Former lawmakers Lam, Helena Wong and James To were also arrested, according to a post on the party's Facebook page.
Benny Tai, a key figure in Hong Kong's 2014 Occupy Central protests and a former law professor, was also arrested, reports said. Tai was one of the main organizers of the primaries.
The home of Joshua Wong, a prominent pro-democracy activist who is serving a 13 1/2-month prison sentence for organizing and participating in an unauthorized protest last year, was also raided, according to a tweet posted from Wong's account.
American human rights lawyer John Clancey was also among those taken into custody. Clancey was the treasurer of political group Power for Democracy, which was involved in the unofficial primaries.
"We need to work for democracy and human rights in Hong Kong," Clancey said as he was being led away by police, in a video posted by local online news outlet Citizen News.
Police also went to the offices of Stand News and Apple Daily, two prominent pro-democracy news outlets, with a court order to hand over documents to assist in an investigation related to the national security law, according to the two media outlets. Another online news outlet, In-Media, received a similar court order. No arrests were made.
Lee pointed to a "10 steps to mutual destruction" plan that included taking control of the legislature, mobilizing protests to paralyze society and calling for international sanctions.
That plan was previously outlined by former law professor Tai. He predicted that between 2020 and 2022, there would be 10 steps to mutual destruction, including the pro-democracy bloc winning a majority in the legislature, intensifying protests, the forced resignation of Lam due to the budget bill being rejected twice, and international sanctions on the Chinese Communist Party.