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Hong Kong police raid newspaper offices, arrest editors, executives under security law

Police officers gather in the lobby of Apple Daily’s headquarters in Hong Kong on Thursday. (AP)

HONG KONG — Police on Thursday raided the Apple Daily newspaper, known for its support for Hong Kong's democracy movement, and arrested five executives, including three top editors, on suspicion of violating the city's national security law. Authorities also froze the tabloid's assets.

The early-morning operation highlighted the authorities’ resolve to shut down any residual space for dissent, including silencing media critical of the Chinese government. Press freedom is supposed to be guaranteed under the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution.

The police warrant allowed officers to seize “journalistic materials” — the first time they have exercised such powers under the security law. Police scoured reporters’ computers, files and notes, and cited as the basis for the arrests dozens of Apple Daily articles that called for Western sanctions on Chinese and Hong Kong officials. The United States last year imposed sanctions on city leader Carrie Lam and other figures for eroding freedoms.

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“We have strong evidence that the questionable articles play a very crucial part of the conspiracy, which provides ammunition for foreign countries” to impose sanctions, said Li Kwai-wah, senior superintendent of the police force, in a news conference.

Earlier, the five executives were taken from their homes by officers from the Hong Kong police’s national security unit and arrested for “collusion with a foreign country.” Police said they also searched their homes.

An Apple Daily live stream showed dozens of police cars surrounding the newspaper’s premises and officers entering the building and taking away boxes of documents.

John Lee, Hong Kong’s secretary for security, described the Apple Daily executives as being part of a conspiracy.

“We are not talking about media or journalist work,” he said. “We are talking about a conspiracy in which suspects try to make use of journalistic work to collude with a foreign country or external elements.”

Collusion with foreign powers is one of four broadly worded crimes under the security law, punishable by up to life in prison. Other articles in the law since it passed last June have significantly eroded basic freedoms in Hong Kong and removed protections for journalistic activities. The New York Times announced shortly after the law took effect that it would move staff from Hong Kong, which had been its Asian base, to Seoul.

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Thursday’s raid was the second against Apple Daily, founded and owned by tycoon Jimmy Lai, since the security law came into force.

Last August, journalists were allowed to live-stream as police entered their offices and rifled through papers. But this time, hundreds of officers blocked the building’s entrances and exits and moved staff to a cafeteria away from the newsroom, according to Apple Daily workers who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they feared repercussions.

“We don’t really know what’s going on inside,” one employee said.

In a letter to readers, Apple Daily said it was “speechless” at the events happening in an “unfamiliar” Hong Kong. “It feels as though we are powerless to stop the regime from exercising its power as it pleases,” the letter said. “Nevertheless, the staff of Apple Daily is standing firm.”

The raid showed how the dragnet is widening beyond Lai and Apple Daily’s business executives to those in news operations.

Lai, a critic of the Chinese Communist Party, was previously arrested under the security law and other charges, including for his role in peaceful pro-democracy protests. The 73-year-old, detained since December, built his fortune in the garment industry before founding Apple Daily and its parent company, Next Digital.

A live stream of Thursday’s raid showed the paper’s chief editor, Ryan Law, escorted by police with his hands tied behind his back. Hong Kong’s Security Bureau forced Next Digital to halt trading and froze about $2.3 million in assets of Apple Daily and two other related companies, according to Li, the police senior superintendent.

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With street demonstrations crushed and activists arrested, Apple Daily has emerged as one of the last avenues for the pro-democracy aspirations of Hong Kong people, who rush to buy copies of the newspaper on key protest anniversaries. Reading the paper in public or buying shares in Next Digital have become acts of resistance.

Before Thursday’s sweep, police had arrested 109 people under the security law and prosecuted 62, according to the state-run Xinhua News Agency. They include 47 pro-democracy lawmakers and activists charged in February with conspiracy to commit subversion. Most were denied bail.

Since Lai’s arrest, Apple Daily reporters and editors have braced for authorities to shut down the paper. Reporters have become accustomed to shredding documents and removing sensitive materials from the office. Some have resigned in recent weeks.

Still, several reporters said the scope of the raid was shocking, punitive and designed to send a message.

“Apple Daily has always been a sharp voice with a clear stance,” said one reporter at the paper. “The raid clearly shows that they don’t want such voices to exist.”

Theodora Yu contributed to this report.

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