The Hong Kong Police on Wednesday arrested 53 pro-democracy activists, including former legislators, for allegedly violating the national security law, reported AP. These are the largest number of arrests since the controversial law was enacted in June to quell the dissent against China.

The Democratic Party said on its Facebook page that the police arrested the activists for taking part in an independently-organised ballot last year to elect democratic candidates for an election to the legislature, according to Reuters. The Hong Kong government, led by Chief Executive Carrie Lam and China, had warned at the time that the elections may violate the new law.

At a news conference, Hong Kong’s security minister John Lee said: “The operation today targets the active elements who are suspected to be involved in the crime of overthrowing, or interfering [and] seriously destroy the Hong Kong government’s legal execution of duties.”

Lee said the arrests were made on suspicion of trying to paralyse the government through their plans to get a majority in the legislature seats, causing a situation where the chief executive had to resign and the government would stop functioning.

All the pro-democracy candidates participating in the unofficial election were arrested, AP reported based on the reports of the arrests by the South China Morning Post, online platform Now News and political groups.

At least seven members of The Democratic Party were arrested, including former party chief Wu Chi-wai, lawmakers Helena Wong, Lam and James To, according to the Facebook post.

American human rights lawyer John Clancey was also arrested. He was the treasurer for the political group Power for Democracy, which was involved in the unofficial primaries.

Occupy Central co-founder Benny Tai Yiu-ting, one of the architects of the poll, was also arrested, South China Morning Post reported. Tai was one of the main organisers of the primaries.

Senior Superintendent of Police Steve Li Kwai-wah said that more arrests could be made as investigations were ongoing. He also said the police had searched 72 premises and frozen HK$1.6 million (Rs 1.5 crore) in funds linked to the primary election.

Carrie Lam had last year postponed the legislative elections that would have followed the unofficial primaries, citing health risks because of the coronavirus pandemic. More than 6 lakh voters had participated in the unofficial primaries held in July. Lee, however, said that the voters would not be targeted in the mass arrests.

China extended support to the Hong Kong Police, saying that the officials were carrying out their duties in accordance with the law. “The rights and freedom Hong Kong people enjoyed have not been affected in any way,” Hua Chunying, a spokesperson for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said at a press conference. “What was affected was that some external forces and individual people in Hong Kong colluded with each other in an attempt to undermine the stability and security of China.”

China has made several arrests and charged many under the national security law. In December, Hong Kong’s media tycoon Jimmy Lai was charged under the law on suspicion of colluding with foreign forces. In November, activists Joshua Wong, Agnes Chow and Ivan Lam were taken into custody after they pleaded guilty to charges related to demonstrations outside the police headquarters during anti-government protests in 2019. They were also charged under the security law.

China’s contentious security law

In June, China’s Parliament had passed the legislation for Hong Kong that would override local laws and give sweeping powers to security agencies. The unprecedented law is aimed at curbing protests – which rocked Hong Kong in 2019 – and prohibiting subversion, separatism, “acts of foreign interference”, and terrorism. These charges are often used in the Chinese mainland to stifle dissidents and political opponents.

Various countries have criticised Beijing’s crackdown on freedoms in Hong Kong. On August 7, the Trump administration imposed sanctions on Lam and 10 other senior officials in the territory and mainland China over their alleged roles in curtailing political freedoms and suppressing dissent. New Zealand, Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom scrapped their extradition treaty with Hong Kong because of China’s law.

In November, all of Hong Kong’s Opposition politicians resigned together after China pushed out four of their colleagues. This came after Beijing passed a resolution allowing the city’s government to dismiss politicians who were considered a threat to national security.