Hong Kong police detained a 90-year-old Roman Catholic cardinal, a singer, and two others on Wednesday under the stringent National Security Act on the suspicion that they colluded with alleged foreign forces.
Cardinal Joseph Zen, singer-actress Denise Ho, lawyer Margaret Ng and scholar Hui Po-keung were detained by Hong Kong’s national security police. But authorities later released them on bail after confiscating their passports.
They were reportedly arrested in relation to their roles as trustees of the now-defunct 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund, which provided legal aid to people who took part in the 2019 pro-democracy protests, UK-based human rights group Hong Kong Watch said. The fund was closed in 2021.
They were suspected of appealing to foreign countries or organisations to impose sanctions on Hong Kong, hence threatening China’s national security, Hong Kong police told BBC News.
Mr Zen has been a long-time critic of the Chinese government. He fled Shanghai for Hong Kong after the Communists took more than China 70 years ago, and is a former bishop of Hong Kong.
He had also condemned the Vatican’s 2018 agreement with Beijing over bishop nominations, which he said was a sellout of underground Christians in China.
Ms Ho and Ms Ng have been arrested earlier under the same law. Ms Ho was detained late last year, while Ms Ng was handed a one-year suspended sentence in 2021 for participating in unauthorised demonstrations.
These arrests came just days after Beijing appointed a new hard-line, pro-China leader for Hong Kong, John Lee Ka-chiu.
“Today’s arrests signal beyond a doubt that Beijing intends to intensify its crackdown on basic rights and freedoms in Hong Kong,” said Hong Kong Watch chief executive Benedict Rogers.
China passed the controversial national security law that increases its powers and police presence in Hong Kong in 2020. The legislation criminalises activities that Beijing deems terrorism, secession or collusion with a foreign power.
Until 31 March this year, 175 people were arrested under the act, and 110 were charged.
Amnesty International condemned the latest arrests and called it a “shocking escalation”.
“Even by Hong Kong’s recent standards of worsening repression, these arrests represent a shocking escalation. Some of the city’s most respected pro-democracy figures, whose activism has always been entirely peaceful, are now potentially facing years in jail,” it said in a statement on Wednesday.
Human Rights Watch also hit out at authorities in Hong Kong.
“Arresting a 90-year-old cardinal for his peaceful activities has to be a shocking new low for Hong Kong, illustrating the city’s free fall in human rights in the past two years,” it said.
Vatican spokesperson Matteo Bruni has also expressed concern.