HONG KONG -- Fifty-three Hong Kong pro-democracy politicians, activists and supporters were detained on Wednesday morning in the first mass arrests since the city's national security law was enacted last June, signaling authorities' increasing clampdown on dissent in the city.
Those detained include former prominent lawmakers from the city's opposition parties such as Wu Chi-wai, James To, Lam Cheuk-ting and Alvin Yeung as well as others who were involved in an unofficial primary vote in July 2020 to choose opposition legislative candidates.
The Legislative Council election was to take place last September but was postponed a year amid a resurgence in COVID-19 cases.
In November, all remaining pan-democratic lawmakers collectively resigned to protest an intervention by Beijing to unseat four of their colleagues. This left the former British colony without an opposition in the Legislative Council for the remainder of its extended term.
Authorities said six people were arrested on suspicion of subverting state power -- an offense under the national security law -- by organizing a primary election aimed at paralyzing the government. The others were detained for their alleged participation.
About 1,000 police officers were mobilized on Wednesday for the mass arrests, Senior Superintendent Steve Li Kwai-wah of the Hong Kong police's national security department said at a news conference. Officers searched 72 premises and froze 1.6 million Hong Kong dollars ($206,370) in funds, he added.
John Lee, Hong Kong's secretary for security, said the operation aimed at a group of people who had formulated an "evil plan" to "overthrow" the government and "sink Hong Kong into a bottomless abyss" was necessary.
Those arrested included John Clancey, an American lawyer and the treasurer of advocacy group Power for Democracy, one of the organizers of the primary. His law firm was also searched.
Benny Tai, a legal scholar who organized the primary vote, also was detained by national security officers, local media reported. Moderate voices in the pro-democracy camp and younger "localist" groups were both targeted in the crackdown.
The home of activist Joshua Wong, who took part in the primary, was raided by police as well. Wong is serving a 13-month prison term for his role in a 2019 protest, but the security law charges could result in a much heavier sentence.
Meanwhile, the newsrooms of media outlets Apple Daily, Hong Kong In-Media and Stand News were visited by police officers holding search warrants demanding documents relating to primary candidates. Reporters Without Borders condemned the police action, calling it "an apparent intimidation attempt."
Pollster Chung Kim-wah of the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute, which helped carry out the primary, was asked by police to assist in the investigation, Chung told Commercial Radio on Wednesday, adding that all personal information of voters had been destroyed.
Last year, more than 600,000 voters participated in the primary organized by the pro-democracy camp shortly after the national security law took effect. The opposition aimed to win a majority of seats in the Legislative Council for the first time.
If it had been successful, the opposition camp could have blocked budgets and stalled bills to boost its leverage against the Beijing-appointed Chief Executive Carrie Lam. In Hong Kong, the chief executive has to resign if the budget is rejected by the legislature twice.
Before the primary, local authorities warned that those involved in the poll should "be wary and avoid carelessly violating the law." However, police said later on Wednesday that voters in the election would not be charged under the national security law.
Beijing's liaison office in Hong Kong expressed its "unwavering support" of the Hong Kong police action to safeguard national security in the territory, maintaining that the security law had ensured the "safety, stability and prosperity" of the territory.
A number of primary candidates have gone into exile in light of the security law, including former lawmakers Ted Hui and Nathan Law. Both men are in the U.K., where Law is seeking asylum.
Following the mass arrests, Law called for the European Parliament to halt the recent EU-China investment deal as well as sanction China and Hong Kong officials responsible for the crackdown in the city.
The national security law provides criminal penalties for secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces. Suspects can be extradited for trial in mainland China and face life imprisonment.
Before Wednesday, only 40 arrests had been made under the law and only four people had been formally charged, including Jimmy Lai, founder of pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily.
Human Rights Watch said Wednesday's mass arrests are "removing 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," said Maya Wang, the group's senior researcher, in a statement.
Taiwan's Mainland Affairs Council said it was "shocked" by the early morning raids, which had "turned Hong Kong from the 'Pearl of the Orient'" -- a Hong Kong tourism campaign slogan -- "into the 'Purgatory of the Orient.'"
Antony Blinken, U.S. President-elect Joe Biden's nominee for secretary of state, wrote in a tweet that, "The sweeping arrests of pro-democracy demonstrators are an assault on those bravely advocating for universal rights."
"The Biden-Harris administration will stand with the people of Hong Kong and against Beijing's crackdown on democracy," he said.
The Australian government also issued a statement expressing "concern" over the arrests made under the national security law, which it said had eroded Hong Kong's autonomy, democratic principles and rule of law.
Additional reporting by Dean Napolitano.