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HK police arrest 53 in raids on democracy activists

Operation is biggest since new national security law imposed six months ago

HONG KONG: Police arrested 53 people in raids on democracy activists yesterday, with the authorities saying last year's unofficial vote to choose opposition candidates in city elections was part of a plan to overthrow the Hong Kong government.

Dawn raids on 72 premises saw many prominent pro-democracy advocates arrested in the biggest crackdown since Beijing imposed a new, controversial security law in the former British colony last June.

The arrests were linked to an unprecedented, independently organised and non-binding vote to select opposition candidates for a since-postponed legislative election.

About 1,000 police took part in the raids, which included searches of the offices of a pollster and a law firm.

Secretary for Security John Lee said the group had planned to cause "serious damage" to society and that the authorities would not tolerate any subversive acts.

CRACKDOWN

"The operation today targets the active elements who are suspected to be involved in the crime of overthrowing or interfering seriously to destroy the Hong Kong government's legal execution of duties," Mr Lee told reporters.

The crackdown based on the June 2020 security law, which critics say crushes wide-ranging freedoms promised when the city returned to Chinese rule in 1997, places China further on a collision course with the United States just as Mr Joe Biden prepares to take over the presidency.

Beijing's top representative office in Hong Kong said in a statement it firmly supported the arrests.

Members of the democratic camp held a news conference to call for the release of "political prisoners".

The police said campaigning to win a majority in Hong Kong's 70-seat legislature with the purpose of blocking government proposals to increase pressure for democratic reforms could be seen as subversive.

The city's leader is not directly elected and only half the legislative seats are open to democratic vote, with the other half stacked mostly with pro-Beijing figures.

"The people involved are suspected of making use of what they call a '35+' plan ... to somehow paralyse the Hong Kong government," Mr Lee said.

The police cited a rule that if the legislature fails to pass the annual Budget twice, the city's chief executive must step down.

The national security law prohibits disrupting and interfering with the city's administration.

The legislative election was due in September last year but was postponed, with the authorities citing coronavirus risks.

It is unclear who could run for the opposition in any future polls following the mass arrests.

In yesterday's operation, the police searched the offices of Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute, which helped organise the primaries.

The organisers had destroyed the data of the more than 600,000 people who voted immediately after ending the count.

American lawyer John Clancey was arrested during a raid of law firm Ho Tse Wai & Partners, a source at the firm said. - REUTERS

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