One of the 53 people arrested in Hong Kong on Wednesday, the American lawyer John Clancey, has been released without charge pending further inquiries.
Police were expected to begin releasing the remaining detainees on Thursday, according to local media, after an unprecedented round-up of politicians, campaigners, and activists over accusations that their holding of a democratic poll violated the national security law (NSL) imposed by China’s government.
The individuals, who include former lawmakers, academics, social workers, and students, are being released on police bail pending charges, and will likely have to report back at regular intervals. The arrest of Clancey, a prominent Hong Kong lawyer and US citizen, marked the first use of the national security law (NSL) against a foreigner.
Clancey, who is the chairman of the Asian Human Rights Commission and treasurer of a group linked to the democratic primaries at the centre of the allegations, was arrested when police raided the law firm Ho, Tse, Wai and Partners on Wednesday, a source at his law firm told Reuters.
Local media also reported on Thursday that activists Joshua Wong, who is already serving a 13-month prison sentence, and Tam Tak Chi, who is in jail on remand, were also re-arrested over related allegations.
Around 1,000 police officers were mobilised to raid 72 premises and arrest 53 people, including 45 men and eight women, aged between 23 and 79 “for subversion of state power”, in what was the largest mass arrest since the introduction of the national security law in June. It more than doubled the number of people apprehended for alleged violations, and police did not rule out further arrests.
The 53 were arrested over their involvement – including as candidates – in unofficial primaries held last year.
The primaries drew 600,000 Hongkongers out to vote for candidates who campaigned on a promise of “35+”: winning a majority in the 70-seat legislature and voting down government bills to force the resignation of Lam.
Authorities suggested at the time and confirmed on Wednesday that they considered this an act of subversion under the NSL, which carries a life sentence for the most serious offences.
Alan Leong, a lawyer and member of the Civic party, labelled the suggestion “ridiculous in the extreme”, and said the right to vote against legislation was enshrined in Hong Kong’s mini constitution, the Basic Law.
On Thursday, pro-establishment lawmaker, Michael Tien, and a deputy of China’s National People’s Congress, also questioned the accusations.
“They’re saying they’ll oppose all [the bills] regardless of content … however the overriding condition for [the NSL] to be in effect is they have to be using unlawful means to achieve that,” he told RTHK radio. “So it begs the question how holding a primary is unlawful … even establishment parties have held their own primaries.”
Tien said the NSL probably needed to be redrafted if the authorities were only concerned with punishing people for their motives and not their methodology.
If prosecutors weren’t able to secure convictions, that would be a “slap in the face” for the government because it would reveal they don’t understand the law, and would further divide Hong Kong society, he said.
The veteran activist Lee Cheuk-yan told the Guardian the arrests were “absurd”. “[The alleged crimes] are not remotely close to anything concerning national security but they still use the law,” he said.