Hong Kong police have issued arrest warrants for eight overseas activists days after the third anniversary of the introduction of a national security law that granted authorities sweeping extraterritorial powers to prosecute acts or comments made anywhere in the world that it deems criminal.

Supt Steve Li Kwai-wah, a police officer, told a press conference on Monday that Nathan Law, Anna Kwok, Finn Lau, Dennis Kwok, Ted Hui, Kevin Yam, Mung Siu-tat and Yuan Gong-yi, high-profile pro-democracy activists, former lawmakers and legal scholars, “have encouraged sanctions … to destroy Hong Kong”.

The eight, who are based in various places including the UK – where at least three of them are thought to be – the US and Australia, are accused of continuing to violate the national security law while in exile. The charges carry a maximum life sentence.

Police have offered a reward of HK$1m (£100,700) a person.

The national security law, which is widely seen as a Beijing-backed tool of suppression in Hong Kong, was imposed on 30 June 2020 after months of pro-democracy protests had engulfed the city. Chinese and Hong Kong authorities say the law was necessary to restore stability to the territory but critics say that it violates free expression. All left Hong Kong after the introduction of the law.

The UK foreign secretary, James Cleverly, described the decision by Hong Kong police to issue the arrest warrants as an example of “the authoritarian reach of China’s extraterritorial law.”

Writing on Twitter, Law, who has been granted asylum in the UK, said: “These charges are classic examples of abusing the concept of ‘national security’, pushing its definition to an extreme to suppress dissident voices.

“If meeting foreign politicians, attending seminars & hearings are ‘colluding with foreign forces’, a lot of [Hong Kong] officials should be in legal trouble.”

Yam, a legal scholar who is now based in Australia, said: “I can’t say I’m surprised because whenever you speak out overseas about Hong Kong you never know what might happen. I feel no joy from being congratulated I just feel sad for Hong Kong.”

The Australian government said it was “deeply disappointed” by the arrest warrants.

The foreign affairs minister, Penny Wong, said Australia had “consistently expressed concerns about the broad application of the national security law to arrest or pressure pro-democracy figures and civil society”.

“Freedom of expression and assembly are essential to our democracy, and we will support those in Australia who exercise those rights,” she said on Monday.

In its latest report on the situation in Hong Kong, the UK’s Foreign Office said that the law, along with the use of a colonial-era sedition law against government critics, “continues to damage Hong Kong’s way of life”.

Mung, a trade union organiser who is based in the UK, said: “From the very beginning [that] I embarked on the road of exile and committed to international advocacy against dictatorship, I have been prepared that this might happen one day.

“However, I strongly believe that the regime cannot deter people from fighting for justice and democracy.”

Sophie Richardson, the China director for Human Rights Watch, said: “These arrest warrants are not an indictment of these activists, but of Hong Kong’s once well-regarded law enforcement and judiciary. Democracies should not only flatly reject the warrants, which authorities want upheld internationally, but they should also increase protections to those threatened by Beijing.”

A provision in the law that criminalises acts deemed to violate national security anywhere in the world has meant that even people who flee overseas can be targeted.

Lau, a political activist who is now based in the UK, said that while he welcomed the fact that the UK suspended its extradition treaty with Hong Kong after the national security law, some arms of the government failed to understand the level of threat against Hongkongers in the UK. “There are so many instances in the past few years, most recently in Southampton and in the Manchester consulate where they dragged people in, where the UK government is not taking proactive measures to counter transnational repression.

“The risk of abduction and even physical assault has escalated a lot … while I try to be more cautious I won’t stop advocating for Hong Kong people.”

In June Hong Kong pro-democracy demonstrators were allegedly attacked by pro-Beijing activists in Southampton. Last year Chinese diplomats brawled with Hong Kong protesters at the Chinese consulate in Manchester, leading to six diplomats being recalled.

Hong Kong police reportedly told the press conference that 260 people had been arrested as a result of the national security law, with 79 of them convicted.


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