HONG KONG (Reuters) - Hong Kong police arrested a number of prominent pro-democracy activists including Joshua Wong and three lawmakers on Friday, seeking to rein in protests that have plunged the city into its worst political crisis for decades.
Wong, who was one of the leaders of the pro-democracy “Umbrella” movement five years ago, is the most prominent activist to be arrested since protests escalated in mid-June over fears China is exerting greater control over the city and squeezing its freedoms.
He was charged with inciting and participating in an unauthorized assembly outside police headquarters on June 21.
Police also arrested Agnes Chow, another senior member of his group Demosisto.
Other activists arrested included Athea Suen, a former university student union leader, as well as three pro-democracy lawmakers - Cheng Chung-tai, Au Nok-hin and Jeremy Tam.
Au and Tam had been present at some protests and faced charges including obstructing police officers, according to their political parties.
Police also blocked plans for a mass demonstration on Saturday in a show of force a day before the fifth anniversary of a decision by China to curtail democratic reforms in the former British colony.
The bespectacled Wong, who was 17 when he became the face of the student-led civil disobedience movement in 2014 that blocked major roads for 79 days, has not been a prominent figure in the latest protests, which have no identifiable leaders.
He was released from jail in June after serving a five-week term for contempt of court.
Wong and Chow were released on bail and the case was adjourned until Nov. 8, but they will be subject to travel restrictions and a night-time curfew.
“Under the chilling effects generated by Beijing and Hong Kong governments, we are strongly aware how they arrest activists no matter whether they behave progressively or moderately,” Wong told reporters.
“All we ask for is just to urge Beijing and Hong Kong governments to withdraw the bill, stop police brutality and respond to our calls for a free election.”
Thousands of demonstrators blockaded police headquarters on June 21 protesting against a now-suspended extradition bill that would have allowed people to be sent to mainland China for trial in Communist Party-controlled courts.
More than three months of unrest has evolved into calls for greater democracy under the “one country, two systems” formula, by which Hong Kong has been ruled since the handover from British rule in 1997. The formula guaranteed freedoms not enjoyed on mainland China.
Protesters accuse China of interference that they say has steadily eroded Hong Kong’s freedoms and autonomy.
China denies the accusation. It has denounced the protests and warned of the damage to the economy of Hong Kong, a major financial center.
It has also accused foreign powers, particularly the United States and Britain, of fomenting the demonstrations and warned against foreign interference.
Andy Chan, a founder of the pro-independence Hong Kong National Party that was banned last September, was arrested at Hong Kong airport on Thursday on suspicion of participating in riots and attacking police, police said.
Wong’s pro-democracy group, Demosisto, said the arrests were an attempt to scapegoat individuals in a movement that has built momentum without public figureheads.
“The arrests were apparently a political operation,” Demosisto said on its Facebook page. “It will only make the government misjudge the public, leading to a deadly situation that is more difficult to resolve.”
The Civil Human Rights Front, the organizer of previous protests, canceled a mass demonstration planned for Saturday after the police refused permission.
Reuters exclusively reported on Friday that Chief Executive Carrie Lam previously requested Beijing’s approval for a plan to ease tension, evidence of the extent to which China is controlling the Hong Kong government’s response to the unrest.
Nearly 900 people have been arrested since the demonstrations began. There have been frequent clashes between protesters and police, who have often used fired tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse crowds, amid accusations of excessive force.
With protesters and authorities locked in an impasse and Hong Kong facing its first recession in a decade, speculation has grown that the city government may impose emergency law, giving it extra powers over detentions, censorship and curfews.
Hong Kong’s July retail sales sank the most since February 2016, government data showed on Friday.
The government would consider using “all laws” to prevent violence, Hong Kong leader Lam, who has become a lightning rod for protesters’ anger, said this week.
Hong Kong was a long way from having to make use of emergency powers, a senior official of China’s parliament told Reuters on Friday.
China brought fresh troops into Hong Kong on Thursday in what it said was a routine rotation of its garrison.
(This story corrects spelling to Au Nok-hin in paragraph 5)
Reporting by Jessie Pang, Donny Kwok, Twinnie Siu, Felix Tam, Ryan Chang, Joyce Zhou and Anne Marie Roantree; Writing by Joe Brock; Editing by Paul Tait, Robert Birsel and Frances Kerry