Hong Kong police arrested Lai, a strident critic of the Chinese communist regime, on Monday, along with two of his sons, Lai Gin-yan and Chow Tat-kuen, and several executives from his media company, Next Digital.
Lai, 71, was arrested under the Chinese regime’s new national security law on allegations of collusion with “foreign forces or external elements.” Later that day, more than 200 police officers raided the newsroom of Lai’s newspaper Apple Daily—the largest pro-democracy outlet in the city.
O’Brien said Monday that Lai and his colleagues had defended “the fundamental rights and liberties that Beijing guaranteed to the people of Hong Kong but that it now systematically attacks.”
Several other media and pro-democracy figures were also arrested Monday, including prominent activist Agnes Chow. Police later said 10 people—nine men and one woman—were arrested, without naming them.
The arrests were, O’Brien said, “a clear effort to intimidate pro-democracy and political opposition figures and suppress Hong Kong’s free and independent media, which have played key roles in the city’s character and success.”
Hong Kong authorities have cracked down on pro-democracy elements in the city since the national security law came into effect last month. The law punishes any actions Beijing considers “subversion, secession, terrorism, and collusion with foreign forces” with up to life in prison.
Prior to the law’s implementation, Beijing and the Hong Kong government said that the new law would only be used against a small minority of criminals, and would not impinge on the city’s freedoms.
Since July, popular protest slogans have been outlawed and pro-democracy candidates were disqualified from running in legislative elections. Later, the government said the election would be postponed for a year, citing the pandemic as the reason for the delay. Before Monday, 15 people, including teenagers, had been arrested under the new law.
O’Brien said in his statement that Beijing’s national security law denies the people of Hong Kong their fundamental rights and liberties, and increases the Chinese regime’s control over Hong Kong’s internal affairs.
“These reported arrests, following the recent action by the Hong Kong government to unjustly disqualify candidates and postpone the Legislative Council elections, are the latest violations of Beijing’s commitments to the Hong Kong people and the world,” he said.
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has applauded Lai’s arrest.
A spokesman for China’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office told China’s state-run media Xinhua that Lai was representative of people who were “anti-China, anti-Hong Kong,” and that he planned and instigated “illegal” protests, funded pro-independence forces, and used his media group to spread rumors. The Chinese regime has pushed the narrative that the mass protest movement ignited last year only because it was fomented by foreign countries to incite chaos.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo echoed O’Brien’s comments by saying he was “deeply troubled” by reports of Lai’s arrest “under Hong Kong’s draconian National Security Law.”
“Further proof that the CCP has eviscerated Hong Kong’s freedoms and eroded the rights of its people,” Pompeo said in a Twitter post on Monday.
Last week, the United States imposed sanctions on Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam and 10 other Chinese and Hong Kong officials over their roles in subverting the city’s freedoms through implementing the new law. Beijing retaliated on Monday by sanctioning 11 U.S. citizens, including federal lawmakers and heads of U.S.-based nonprofits and rights groups.
The Congressional-Executive Commission on China called on U.S. allies and partners to respond to the arrests with their “own sanctions and condemnations,” calling the raid and arrests “serious violations of human rights.” It urged the United Nations to take action.
Apple Daily meanwhile pushed ahead with publication of Tuesday’s paper with a promise to Hong Kong to “fight on” in a front-page headline above an image of Lai in handcuffs.
The paper said on its website that more than 500,000 copies of the pro-democracy tabloid were printed Tuesday, up from the usual 100,000.
“We stand with Jimmy Lai and his sons and colleagues, and call on Beijing to repeal the national security law and restore Hong Kong’s rule of law immediately,” O’Brien said.
Cathy He and Reuters contributed to this report.