HONG KONG (AFP) - Nine democracy activists were arrested in Hong Kong on Thursday (April 27) over an anti-Beijing protest, according to campaign groups, in the latest swoop by police as protesters say they are being persecuted.
Concerns are growing that the semi-autonomous city's freedom is under threat from Beijing, fuelling calls from some activists for greater autonomy or even a complete split from China.
Pro-independence activists Yau Wai-ching and Baggio Leung were arrested and charged on Wednesday over causing chaos in the legislature after being barred from taking up their seats as lawmakers last year.
And last month nine pro-democracy activists - including student protesters and lawmakers - were charged for their roles in mass 2014 pro-democracy Umbrella Movement rallies.
The spate of arrests come ahead of an expected visit by China's President Xi Jinping to mark the 20th anniversary of the handover of the city by Britain back to China in 1997 on July 1.
"I believe the police have set out to arrest all street activists so they won't dare to protest when Xi Jinping visits," pro-democracy leader Joshua Wong told AFP.
Nine activists were arrested on Thursday over their participation in a rally in November against China's decision to intervene in the row over whether to disqualify Yau and Baggio, according to their party offices.
That protest outside China's liaison office in Hong Kong saw scuffles as demonstrators charged barriers and police used pepper spray to drive them back.
The rally was triggered after Beijing announced it would make a special interpretation of Hong Kong's constitution to determine whether Yau and Baggio should be prevented from taking up their seats after staging an anti-China protest during their oath-taking.
Beijing's final ruling, two days after the rally, effectively ensured the pair were barred.
Two of the activists arrested on Thursday belong to new pro-democracy party Demosisto, founded by student leaders Wong and Nathan Law, who is now a legislator.
Others include members of the long-standing pro-democracy party League of Social Democrats (LSD), as well as student or former student protesters.
The charges include illegal assembly and obstructing a police officer, LSD said.
Derek Lam of Demosisto was the only activist so far to emerge from the Western police station Thursday morning, and said he was charged with inciting others to cause disorder in public.
Police were unable to immediately confirm the arrests and charges.
"It is ironic that, as the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong's handover to China approaches, the territory's autonomy looks increasingly fragile," said Maya Wang of Human Rights Watch in Hong Kong.
Wang warned that the "heavy-handed" approach could backfire, pointing to 2014's mass protests, prompted by restrictions imposed by Beijing on fully free leadership elections.