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Hong Kong’s Italian missionary protests activists’ detention

Some 200 pro-democracy politicians and activists are detained in Hong Kong's high-security Shek Pik prison
Italian PIME missionary Father Franco Mella has served in Hong Kong since 1974

Italian PIME missionary Father Franco Mella has served in Hong Kong since 1974. (AFP file photo)

Published: July 15, 2022 10:03 AM GMT
Updated: July 15, 2022 10:16 AM GMT

An elderly Catholic missionary in Hong Kong has launched a three-day hunger strike outside a high-security prison demanding the release of politicians and activists incarcerated under the city’s Beijing-imposed controversial national security law.

Father Franco Mella, 74, a member of the Milan-based Pontifical Institute of Foreign Missions (PIME) has vowed to abstain from food as he started his protest near the Shek Pik prison on Lantau Island in Hong Kong on July 15 amid sweltering summer heat, Reuters reported.

"The weather is so hot. So, they are suffering inside. And the message [is] we are with you, do not lose hope. Let us continue to fight for everybody's freedom," Father Mella said.

Amidst the scorching heat measuring up to 30 degrees Celsius, the task of abstaining from food has become even more challenging for the elderly priest.

The Milan-born priest arrived in Hong Kong in 1974, and since then has stood up for human rights and freedom for the people of the Chinese-ruled city-state.

The Hong Kong government spokesperson however commented that the arrests were lawful and based on evidence. "It would be contrary to the rule of law to suggest that people of certain backgrounds could be above the law," the spokesperson said.

About 200 people including activists and politicians have been arrested and charged under the national security law imposed by China in June 2020 to suppress the pro-democracy protests that erupted in 2019.

Top US diplomat in Hong Kong, Hanscom Smith, who ended his three-year term on July 11, warned Beijing that it cannot expect Hong Kong to maintain its long-standing role as a global financial and business center if it continues the “crude and chilling” use of the repressive law.

Meanwhile, on July 7 a United Nations Human Rights Committee began reviewing Hong Kong’s rights record for the first time since Beijing imposed its national security law.

Father Mella was also among the Christian representatives who handed over a letter to the then Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, pleading for the release of Jimmy Lai and other activists in February 2022.

Jimmy Lai, a Catholic entrepreneur and media tycoon, founded the now-defunct popular newspaper Apple Daily in 1995. It was forced to shut down in June 2021 by the Chinese government after 27 years of operation in its pro-democracy stance.

The Italian missionary had staged a similar “silent protest” in January 2022 at Lai Chi Kok Reception Center where 47 pro-democracy activists were detained for more than 300 days since their arrest.

“We cannot really understand why the prosecution put them in jail just… because they hadn’t prepared for the materials about this case,” Father Mella told Hong Kong Free Press in January.

The national security law has triggered international condemnation as it has become the most repressive tool to muzzle dissent in Hong Kong, the former British colony once known as the freest city in the world.

The law has effectively diminished freedoms, rights and a higher degree of autonomy including independent judiciary and legislature guaranteed in the “one country, two systems” framework in the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984.

The erosion of freedoms in Hong Kong started in 2019, when the pro-Beijing regime of Carrie Lam proposed the controversial extradition bill, which sought to allow Hong Kong suspects to be sent for trial in China.

The bill triggered massive public protests as anti-China and pro-democracy movements nearly crippled the city.

The bill was later axed. Instead, the communist regime imposed the national security law to suppress pro-democracy politicians and supporters.

The arrests under the law including those against top Catholic politicians and activists sparked global outrage.

On May 11, national security police arrested 90-year-old Cardinal Joseph Zen, the former bishop of Hong Kong, on charges of “colluding with foreign forces.” The elderly churchman was released shortly following a global backlash.

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