Hong Kong police have made their first arrests under a new “anti-protest” law imposed by Beijing, as crowds marked 23 years since the end of British rule.
Police say two people were held for breaching the new law, including a man holding a pro-independence flag. Dozens of others were arrested during a rally.
The national security law targets secession, subversion and terrorism with punishments up to life in prison.
Activists say it erodes freedoms but China has dismissed the criticism.
Hong Kong’s sovereignty was handed back to China by Britain in 1997 and certain rights were supposed to be guaranteed for at least 50 years under the “one country, two systems” agreement.
On Wednesday, crowds gathered for the annual pro-democracy rally to mark the anniversary, defying a ban by authorities who cited restrictions on gatherings of more than 50 people because of Covid-19.
Police used water cannon and pepper spray on demonstrators and said at least 70 people had been arrested, two of them under the new security law.
It said one of them included a man who was holding a “Hong Kong Independence” flag, though some Twitter users said the picture appeared to show a small “no to” written in front of the slogan, Reuters reported. The man has not been identified, and it was not clear whether he would be prosecuted.
#BREAKING: A man was arrested for holding a #HKIndependence flag in #CausewayBay, Hong Kong, violating the #NationalSecurityLaw. This is the first arrest made since the law has come into force. pic.twitter.com/C0ezm3SGDm— Hong Kong Police Force (@hkpoliceforce) July 1, 2020
The legislation has been widely condemned by countries including the US and UK as well as human rights activists. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said: “[China] promised 50 years of freedom to the Hong Kong people, and gave them only 23.”
Speaking in Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian urged countries to look at the situation in Hong Kong objectively and said China would not allow foreign interference in its domestic affairs.
Earlier, Zhang Xiaming of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs office of the State Council, bristled at foreign critics, asking them: “What’s this got to do with you?”
Chief Executive Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing leader, said the law would “restore stability” after widespread protests in 2019, saying: “The [new law] is considered the most important development in relations between the central government and Hong Kong since the handover.”
Meanwhile, UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab will make a statement later with the country’s response, after accusing China of ignoring international obligations by taking new powers that could curb civil liberties.