Two dozen democracy advocates in Hong Kong were charged Thursday with taking part in an annual vigil honoring the victims of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, the latest sign of the aggressive clampdown on dissent in the semiautonomous Chinese territory.
The charges came on the heels of a politically fraught week as authorities in Beijing and Hong Kong invoked a sweeping new national security law to crack down on the opposition.
The June 4 Tiananmen vigil has been held for decades but was banned for the first time this year because of the coronavirus outbreak.
The charges, tied to an event before the imposition of the national security law, came a week after a dozen pro-democracy candidates, including sitting lawmakers, were barred from running in legislative elections in September. The next day, Hong Kong’s government postponed the election by one year, using the pandemic to justify the move.
The 24 people charged Thursday include Lee Cheuk-yan, a veteran organizer of the annual vigils, Joshua Wong, a prominent activist, and Gwyneth Ho, a former journalist. Wong and Ho were also among the candidates disqualified from running in the legislative election. They were accused of “knowingly taking part in an unauthorized assembly.”
Lee, 63, a former lawmaker, faced an additional charge of “holding an unauthorized assembly.” In June, he and several other leaders of the group that organizes the candlelight vigil were charged with inciting others to join the commemoration.
“I feel the pressure — I am overloaded with charges,” Lee said in an interview. “Even if you’re peaceful and nonviolent, they’d still want to stifle and suppress peaceful assemblies.”
Wong, 23, who is currently facing a separate trial linked to a protest last year, described similarly feeling “worn out by lawsuits” at the hands of the government.
“Just 24 hours after I have left the court yesterday morning, I am now facing another charge by the government,” Wong wrote. “Clearly, the regime plans to stage another crackdown on the city’s activists by all means.”
The Tiananmen vigil, held annually since 1990, has routinely drawn tens of thousands of protesters. Organizers said that during this year’s vigil they would observe social distancing rules.
Despite the ban on this year’s June 4 protest, thousands of people gathered across the city that evening, including in Victoria Park, where the rally has historically been held and where officials broadcast warnings against taking part in the gathering.