Hong Kong media tycoon and founder of Apple Daily newspaper Jimmy Lai arrives at the West Kowloon Magistrates Court to hear charges related to last year's protests in Hong Kong on May 18, 2020. Photo: AFP / Anthony Wallace

Hong Kong’s political crisis returned to center stage on Monday as clashes erupted in the legislature and a group of prominent pro-democracy activists were charged for taking part in last year’s huge protests.

Four months of calm imposed by mass arrests and the coronavirus pandemic has unraveled in recent weeks as tensions soar in a city still marbled by divisions.

Among those in court on Monday to hear formal charges were 72-year-old media tycoon Jimmy Lai, founder of anti-establishment newspaper Apple Daily, and Martin Lee, an octogenarian former barrister who helped write the city’s constitution.

The group of 15 also includes former lawmakers Margaret Ng, Albert Ho, Leung Kwok-hung, Au Nok-hin and current lawmaker Leung Yiu-chung.

All were charged with organizing and taking part in unlawful assemblies last summer. Five face a more serious charge of incitement, which carries up to five years in jail.

All were bailed and some used the appearance to criticize the government. 

Asked by a judge if he understood the charges, social activist Raphael Wong shouted: “I understand this is a political prosecution.”

The arrests have sparked criticism from Britain, the European Union and UN’s human rights body – the latter saying non-violent activists should not be prosecuted for attending unsanctioned rallies.  

Hong Kong’s government say police are following the law, while Beijing has praised the prosecutions. 

Chamber chaos

The charges came on another day of chaos inside the city’s House Committee, a body that helps scrutinize bills, with protesting pro-democracy lawmakers dragged from the chamber by security guards and scuffles between rival camps.

It is the second time in a fortnight that clashes have broken out as pro-democracy supporters try to scupper a law that bans insulting China’s national anthem.

The committee has been without a leader since October, meaning no bills have made it to the legislature for a vote, including the national anthem bill.

Pro-democracy lawmakers have used filibustering to stop voting for a new chair. 

On Monday, the pro-Beijing camp installed its own committee chair, armed with external legal opinion saying they had the power to end the deadlock.

But the pro-democracy camp said the move was a coup, citing the legal opinion of the legislature’s own lawyers.

Under a deal agreed with Britain before the city’s return to China, Hong Kong has a partially elected legislature and certain freedoms that are unseen on the authoritarian mainland until 2047.

It is administered by a pro-Beijing local government that is appointed, not popularly elected. 

Calls for greater democracy have snowballed in recent years as fears rise that Beijing is prematurely eroding Hong Kong’s freedoms.

Millions hit the streets last year for seven months of pro-democracy rallies that often spun out into clashes between police and petrol bomb wielding protesters.

Those protests were initially sparked by another controversial bill that would have allowed extraditions to mainland China.

That bill, which was eventually withdrawn, also sparked fights in the legislature before the political unrest exploded onto the streets.

China’s leaders have dismissed popular anger in Hong Kong and instead portrayed last year’s protests as a foreign-sponsored plot to destabilize the motherland.

Beijing has made clear it wants new security legislation passed after last year’s unrest, including an anti-sedition law, the national anthem bill – and more patriotic education in schools.

Democracy supporters say such moves ride roughshod over the wishes of most Hong Kongers and warn it will spark new unrest with small protests already bubbling up in recent weeks.

Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam began the new year vowing the heal divisions but has made little attempt at reconciliation since.