HELSINKI: The EU’s diplomatic chief on Friday voiced deep concern about developments in Hong Kong, where leading democracy activists were arrested as the city’s political crisis rages.
Federica Mogherini warned the Hong Kong authorities that the EU was watching closely after police swooped to detain a number of activists including a lawmaker.
EU foreign ministers meeting in Helsinki discussed the turmoil that has been gripping Hong Kong for the past three months, with increasingly violent clashes between police and protesters.
“The developments in Hong Kong over these last hours are extremely worrying,” Mogherini said afterward.
“We expect the authorities in Hong Kong to respect the freedom of assembly, expression and association as well as the right of people to demonstrate peacefully.”
The demonstrations, which began in protest of a planned law permitting extradition to mainland China, have by turns seen millions march, closed the airport and left city streets strewn with bricks and shrouded in tear gas.
“We will continue to pass messages publicly and privately and continue to work for the situation not to continue to go into the wrong direction but rather the opposite, to reverse to a more positive trend,” Mogherini said, noting that EU countries had significant business interests in the former British colony.
Prominent democracy activists including a lawmaker were arrested on Friday in a protest crackdown — a move described by rights groups as a well-worn tactic deployed by China to suffocate dissent ahead of key political events.
The sweep comes after a major rally planned for Saturday was banned by police on security grounds, and then called off by the organizers.
The latest protest had been due to mark the fifth anniversary of Beijing’s rejection of a call for universal suffrage in the semi-autonomous city, sparking the 79-day Umbrella Movement in 2014.
Hong Kong has been locked in three months of political crisis, with increasingly violent clashes between police and protesters that have prompted an escalating intimidation campaign from China.
Two of the Umbrella Movement’s leaders, Joshua Wong and Agnes Chow — both still well-regarded among the city’s youth — appeared in court accused of “inciting others to take part in unauthorized assembly” among other charges, having been arrested in dawn swoops on Friday.
After receiving bail, they spoke outside the court and Wong vowed to “continue our fight,” railing against the “chilling effect” of the arrests on opponents of Hong Kong’s Beijing-backed government.
Authorities are “trying to create white terror” to scare people away from participating in the social and democratic movement, he added — deploying a term used for China’s efforts to fragment and harass the protesters.