Three leaders of a group behind Hong Kong's Tiananmen vigil were charged Thursday with inciting subversion following an earlier police raid at the museum the group ran commemorating Beijing's deadly crackdown in 1989.
The city's police charged Hong Kong Alliance as an organisation, its chairperson Lee Cheuk-yan, vice-chairman Albert Ho -- both veteran pro-democracy activists who have been jailed -- and vice-chairwoman Chow Hang-tung, who was arrested on Wednesday, of "incitement to subversion", according to the group.
The alliance, officially named the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, is the latest target of a sweeping national security law that Beijing imposed on the city last year to quash dissent after huge and often violent democracy protests.
On Thursday afternoon, officers from the newly created national security unit were seen carting away documents and exhibits from the now-shuttered June 4 museum which is run by the group.
The items included a giant logo of the museum, a paper model of the Goddess of Democracy -- a symbol of the 1989 pro-democracy student movement in Beijing -- and photos of the huge annual candlelight vigils Hong Kongers hosted for Tiananmen's victims, as well as dozens of boxes of materials.
The museum raid followed security police's arrests of Chow and three other leaders of the alliance. A fifth member of the group was arrested Thursday.
They were initially arrested for "failing to comply with notice to provide information" -- an offence that carries six months in prison if convicted.
However, the force later added an allegation against Chow and charged her with incitement to subversion -- an offence with a maximum penalty of ten years in jail -- along with Lee and Ho.
They will appear in court on Friday morning for the hearing.
Hong Kong police confirmed the charges Thursday, and added in a statement they had frozen HK$2.2 million in assets belonging to the alliance.
- 'Foreign agent' -
Last month, police ordered the group to hand over financial and operational details, accusing it of working as a "foreign agent".
The request included the personal details of all members since its founding in 1989, all meeting minutes, financial records and any exchanges with other NGOs advocating democracy and human rights in China.
But alliance members have refused, calling the request illegal and arbitrary.
The United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the arrests were "politically motivated" and constituted a "blatant abuse" of the law by those in power.
"Hong Kong authorities must end ongoing threats against civil society and individuals with differing political viewpoints," Blinken said on Twitter.
China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Hong Kong hit back at the US criticism on Thursday, asking Washington to stop attacking the national security law and refrain from interfering in the city's affairs.
Many members of the alliance are already in jail on national security charges or other protest-related offences.
- 'Truth to power' -
Thursday's raid came on the same day 12 democracy activists, including the alliance's jailed vice-chairman Ho, pleaded guilty to unauthorised assembly charges over the Tiananmen vigil in 2020, the first one banned by authorities since 1990.
In his mitigation speech, Ho said he rejected the accusation that they are foreign agents, saying the alliance was formed by local democratic groups supporting democracy protesters in Beijing.
They were "driven by our consciences" to "remember the lesson of history speaking truth to power," he said, explaining why it was important for Hong Kongers to continue remembering Tiananmen.
The vigils were once one of the most visible symbols of the city's political plurality but have been banned over the last two years.
China is rapidly remoulding Hong Kong in its own authoritarian image.
Dozens of democracy figures have been arrested on national security charges and an official campaign has been launched to purge the city of anyone deemed "unpatriotic".
Yeung Sum, a former lawmaker and one of the 12 democracy activists who pleaded guilty Thursday, said Hong Kong would continue to fight for democracy.
"The June 4 candlelight vigil may be banned forever... but the flowers of liberty will blossom regardless of the storm. Hong Kong people will continue to seek our way to democracy and freedom."