Hong Kong authorities have released all but three people arrested in Wednesday’s unprecedented roundup of opposition figures.
Amid heated debate about the legal premise of the accusations against the group, police are yet to lay any charges.
The American lawyer John Clancey was the first to be released on bail pending further inquiries, less than 24 hours after the mass arrests of politicians, campaigners, and activists over accusations that their holding of a democratic poll violated the national security law (NSL) imposed by China’s government. By Friday afternoon 51 others had joined him.
Those still being held are the activists Joshua Wong and Tam Tak-chi, who were already in prison, and the former Democratic party chairman Wu Chi-wai, who has been remanded in custody after police found he had not declared a passport during a previous case.
In a press conference on Friday, five members of the Democratic party who had been arrested accused the authorities of detaining them for political reasons and vowed to maintain their party platform.
“They haven’t charged us yet, but I’m quite sure they may charge some of us sooner or later, whether they have sufficient evidence or not,” said the party’s vice-chair, Lam Cheuk-ting.
“The true motive is very simple. The regime tries to make Hong Kong people silent. They want to create a chilling effect. They want us to bow to the regime and say yes to anything regarding the Carrie Lam administration.”
The individuals, who include former lawmakers, academics, social workers, and students, were released on police bail pending charges. Required to surrender their passports, they will have to report back at regular intervals.
The arrest of Clancey, a prominent Hong Kong lawyer and US citizen, marked the first use of the NSL against a foreigner. The US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, labelled it “arbitrary detention and harassment of US citizens” and threatened sanctions over the crackdown.
Clancey, who is the chairman of the Asian Human Rights Commission and treasurer of a group linked to the democratic primaries at the centre of the allegations, was arrested when police raided the law firm Ho, Tse, Wai and Partners on Wednesday, a source at his law firm told Reuters.
About 1,000 police officers were mobilised to raid 72 premises and arrest 53 people, including 45 men and eight women, aged between 23 and 79, “for subversion of state power” in what was the largest mass arrest since the introduction of the NSL in June. It more than doubled the number of people apprehended for alleged violations, and police did not rule out further arrests.
Wong, who is already serving a 13-month prison sentence, and Tam, who is in jail on remand, were also rearrested over the allegations, bringing the total number to 55.
The group were arrested over their involvement – including as candidates – in unofficial primaries held last year.
The primaries drew 600,000 Hongkongers out to vote for candidates who campaigned on a promise of “35-plus”: winning a majority in the 70-seat legislature and voting down government bills to force the resignation of Lam.
Authorities suggested at the time and confirmed on Wednesday that they considered this an act of subversion under the NSL, which carries a life sentence for the most serious offences.
Alan Leong, a lawyer and member of the Civic party, said the suggestion was “ridiculous in the extreme” and said the right to vote against legislation was enshrined in Hong Kong’s mini constitution, the Basic Law.
On Thursday, the pro-establishment lawmaker Michael Tien, a deputy of China’s National People’s Congress, also questioned the accusations.
“They’re saying they’ll oppose all [the bills] regardless of content … however the overriding condition for [the NSL] to be in effect is they have to be using unlawful means to achieve that,” he told RTHK radio. “So it begs the question how holding a primary is unlawful … even establishment parties have held their own primaries.”
Tien said the NSL probably needed to be redrafted if the authorities were only concerned with punishing people for their motives and not their methodology.
If prosecutors were not able to secure convictions it would be a “slap in the face” for the government because it would reveal it does not understand the law, and would further divide Hong Kong society, he said.
The veteran activist Lee Cheuk-yan told the Guardian the arrests were “absurd”. “[The alleged crimes] are not remotely close to anything concerning national security but they still use the law,” he said.