HONG KONG Five organizers of a massive pro-democracy rally in Hong Kong were charged by police on Friday with a range of minor offences, as pressure builds on Communist Party rulers in Beijing to introduce political reforms in the former British colony.
Tuesday's pro-democracy march, which organizers said attracted more than half a million people, and a subsequent sit-in by mainly student groups rank among the biggest challenges yet to China which resumed control over the former British colony on July 1, 1997.
Police said the charges brought against the organizers included failure to comply with instructions from a police officer, obstructing officers performing their duties, leaving a running vehicle and providing false information to an officer. Police did not name those charged.
"This is political persecution," said Civil Human Rights Front vice-convenor Icarus Wong. "Five-hundred ten-thousand people marched ... the government's response is to arrest the organizers."
Wong said police arrested Civil Human Rights Front convenor Johnson Yeung, the group's treasurer, a driver, and two volunteer workers.
Wong said one charge - that of providing false information - brought against one of the organizers was for giving police the incorrect number for a street address, though the correct street name was provided.
The July 1 march is an annual event that marks Hong Kong's return to China as a special administrative region under a "one country, two systems" policy that gives it wide-ranging autonomy and a separate legal system.
This year, however, the march followed an unofficial referendum on democracy in which nearly 800,000 voted, and led to an overnight sit-in in Hong Kong's Central business district. Police arrested more than 500 people early on Wednesday after they sat down and refused to leave.
Tensions escalated again on Thursday when lawmakers pelted embattled Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying with objects during a Legislative Council meeting, and shouted for democratic reforms.
The extent of democratic reform in Hong Kong and its relationship to Mainland China is increasingly becoming a flashpoint.
Pro-democracy activists say Beijing is failing to make good on its promise of universal suffrage. Beijing feels that Hong Kong is pushing too far.
The standoff intensified last month when Beijing published an unprecedented cabinet-level white paper bluntly reminding Hong Kong that China remains firmly in control.
(Reporting by Nikki Sun, Clare Baldwin and Alice Woodhouse; Editing by Jeremy Laurence)