Police in Hong Kong said on Saturday that they have arrested and charged six pro-democracy legislators, a move that could stoke public anger a day after the death of a university student linked to months of anti-government protests in the semi-autonomous Chinese territory.
Protesters mourned Chow Tsz-Lok on Saturday night at a police-approved prayer rally and pledged not to give up their resistance, with chants of “Hong Kong people, revenge” and “Free Hong Kong”.
The 22-year-old died on Friday, succumbing to injuries four days after falling from a parking garage when police fired tear gas during clashes with protesters.
The South China Morning Post reported that he died of cardiac arrest after being in a coma.
Although the circumstances of his death are unclear, many have blamed the police who have been accused of heavy-handed tactics since the unrest began in June.
Police arrested six legislators and charged them on Saturday with obstructing the local assembly during a raucous May 11 meeting over a now-shelved China extradition bill that sparked the protests. All were freed on bail.
A seventh legislator received a summons but failed to turn up at the police station, a police spokesman said.
Pro-democracy legislators said the clampdown was a calculated move after Chow’s death to provoke more violence, which would then be used as an excuse to postpone or cancel November 24 district elections, which will be viewed as a barometer of public sentiments amid the unrest.
“We’ll say no to their plans,” legislator Tanya Chan told a news conference. “It is a de facto referendum for all Hong Kong voters to cast their vote and say no to police brutality and say no to our unjust system.”
She said the district elections will also send a crucial message to Beijing, which stands accused by protesters of interfering in the freedoms and rights promised to Hong Kong when the former British colony returned to Chinese control in 1997.
Hong Kong’s constitutional and mainland affairs secretary, Patrick Nip, said police made the arrests based on their investigation and that they had nothing to do with the upcoming elections.
Since early June, Hong Kong has been in the throes of protests triggered by a bill that would have allowed the extradition of accused individuals to mainland China for trial under a judicial system with little guarantee of rights.
Although officials formally withdrew the bill two weeks ago, public anger continued by the refusal to address protesters’ demands for an independent inquiry; amnesty for the nearly 600 people charged with offences stemming from the protests; a retraction of police claims that protesters are guilty of rioting, and universal suffrage to elect the full legislature and chief executive.
In recent weeks, calls for disbanding, or at least reorganising, the police force have grown.