More than 50 people, including pro-democracy politicians and campaigners, have been arrested in early-morning raids across Hong Kong in an unprecedented crackdown by authorities that was condemned as a “despicable” assault on freedom.

The activists were reportedly held under the national security law (NSL), with some accused of “subverting state power” by holding primaries and saying they intended to win a majority of seats in the Hong Kong election. Under the law, subversion carries a maximum penalty of life in prison for “principal offenders”.

The raids on Wednesday sent shockwaves around the once semi-autonomous city, as social media posts and news reports confirmed arrest after arrest. By mid-morning, lists of more than 50 individuals emerged, including every candidate to have run in the unofficial pan-democrat primaries last year, organisers and pollsters, and the first known foreigner – an American lawyer – to be arrested under the law.

The unprecedented sweep more than doubled the number of people arrested under the Beijing-imposed NSL, which Hong Kong’s leader, Carrie Lam, once assured the public would be used against only a small group of criminal elements, and would not affect the lives of regular Hongkongers.

Some of the targets live-streamed their own arrests, with at least one video confirming the accusations against them: participating in primary polling for the pro-democracy camp, with the ultimate aim of winning a majority in the legislative council. Under the new laws this was subversion, authorities said.The election was ultimately delayed by Lam for a year, purportedly because of the pandemic.

“Being arrested for sedition for taking part in democracy 35+,” tweeted Dr Kwok Ka Ki, one of four legislators disqualified in November, who was detained on Wednesday morning.

The security secretary, John Lee, later told local media police had arrested a group of people who aimed to “paralyse” the city’s government.

Among those named by political parties or local media as arrested were former lawmakers Helena Wong, Lam Cheuk-ting, Chu Hoi-dick, Claudia Mo, and Leung Kwok-Hung, as well as co-organisers of the polls – legal scholar Benny Tai and pollster Robert Chung, whose office was raided just days prior. The Facebook page of jailed activist Joshua Wong said his home was also raided on Wednesday morning.

Police also visited the newsroom of Hong Kong online outlet Stand News. In the live-streamed visit, officers delivered a document relating to the NSL, but said they had no plans to search the office or take anyone away for investigation.

Hong Kong lawyer and US citizen John Clancey, was also arrested and the offices of his law firm Ho Tse Wai & Partners visited by police. Clancey, who holds US citizenship, is well known in Hong Kong legal circles and has spoken in public about the legal ramifications of the NSL.

“It’s outrageous and it is not the end, because the purge will go on,” said Prof Kenneth Chan, a political scientist at the Baptist University of Hong Kong, and leader of the Election Observation Project which reported on the primaries. “It’s tyranny versus democracy, as we witness how human rights and civil liberties are violated over and over in the name of national security. The people and the city are in danger because of the oppressive regime.”

Maya Wang, a senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch, said the mass arrests removed “the remaining veneer of democracy in the city”.

“Beijing once again has failed to learn from its mistakes in Hong Kong: that repression generates resistance, and that millions of Hong Kong people will persist in their struggle for their right to vote and run for office in a democratically elected government.”

UK-based Hong Kong Watch accused Beijing of “once again undermining Hong Kong’s democracy & breaching its obligations under the Sino-British Joint Declaration”.

“The international community must respond with Magnitsky sanctions and other punitive measures demonstrating that an attack on democracy has consequences.”

International condemnation and diplomatic sanctions on Beijing and Hong Kong officials have had little to no impact on the crackdown.

The timing of the arrests was widely seen as deliberate, occurring on the day of the US run-off vote in Georgia, two weeks before Joe Biden’s inauguration, and just after the EU agreed to a trade deal with China.

Anthony Blinken, Biden’s pick for secretary of state, labelled the arrests “an assault on those bravely advocating for universal rights” and said the Biden-Harris administration would stand with Hong Kong people against Beijing’s crackdown on democracy.

US Republican senator Ben Sasse, a member of the Senate select committee on intelligence said the raids were “despicable”.

“Chairman Xi sees a divided and distracted America, and he isn’t wasting the moment. These despicable raids expose the Chinese Communist party for the cowardly dictators they are.”

At the time of the primaries, the Hong Kong government claimed it had received complaints the poll might have “interfered with and manipulated” the election, and that by pledging to block government bills, candidates and campaigners had potentially violated the NSL.

The NSL defines subversion to include organising or planning to seriously interfere, disrupt or undermine “the performance of duties and functions” by the Central or Hong Kong governments.

The primary polls, while not a formal part of Hong Kong’s election process, drew an estimated 600,000 people out to vote for democracy candidates in what was seen as a litmus test of the public’s response to government crackdowns, and an act of protest.

But Beijing’s top representatives in Hong Kong labelled the primaries “illegal” and accused organisers of colluding with foreign powers in a “serious provocation” of Hong Kong’s electoral system.

“The goal of organiser Benny Tai and the opposition camp is to seize the ruling power of Hong Kong and … carry out a Hong Kong version of ‘colour revolution’,” said a spokesman for the Liaison Office, whose chief is also in charge of implementing the national security laws.

After the polls closed Tai predicted as many as 45 seats could be won by pro-democracy candidates, but he was wary of backlash from those in power.

Until Wednesday around 35 people had been arrested under the law, and four charged, including media mogul Jimmy Lai. Prosecutors have fought to ensure none are released on bail, suggesting anyone charged from Wednesday’s raids will likely be detained.

Lam and Beijing have repeatedly claimed the NSL was necessary to restore order in Hong Kong after the mass protests of 2019, in part to protect and maintain business confidence in the financial hub.

On Wednesday the chair of the Swedish Chamber of Commerce said the political crackdown was having “a significant negative impact on business”.

“Legitimate questions about rule of law raised and as Hong Kong’s image deteriorates, it becomes more and more difficult to defend why you should maintain costly operations here.”

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News – Dozens of Hong Kong pro-democracy figures arrested in sweeping crackdown