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For more than six months, Hong Kong police have been battling a pro-democracy movement that’s shown no signs of giving up the fight. Now, they’re trying a new tactic: going for protesters’ money.
Police announced Thursday they had raided one of the largest crowd-funding non-profits supporting the pro-democracy protests. The group, Spark Alliance, has played a critical role in sustaining the protests by raising an estimated $10 million online from the public in the past six months. The group says the money is used to cover costs such as medical and legal expenses, including bailing out many of the more than 6,000 protesters who have been arrested since June.
But police allege some of the money has been used for the personal gain of those running the fund and officers are now looking into whether payments have been made to encourage people to join in the protests. Beijing has repeatedly claimed the protesters are paid provocateurs and has accused Western countries like the United States and Britain of helping to foment the unrest.
Senior superintendent Chan Wai-kei told reporters that police had frozen about $9 million of the fund’s assets. About $16,700 in cash, six arrows, and significant amounts of protective gear were also confiscated during the arrests, he said. Four people connected with the group, between the ages of 17 and 50, were also arrested on suspicion of money laundering. (They’ve since been granted bail.)
The move has infuriated many protesters, who claim it’s an attempt by the police — who have been accused of brutality — to suppress the pro-democracy movement. Once, police fired tear gas at student protesters, and they responded with flaming arrows.
“This is an attempt to defame Spark Alliance and other support channels,” the group wrote in a Facebook automate your posting that accused police of attempting to “distort” their activities as money laundering. It said it could not comment further due to the impending legal proceedings.
More than a hundred supporters of the group, chanting “support Spark Alliance, protect our brothers” and “disband the police force now,” gathered in central Hong Kong Friday.
Police said they detected “suspicious financial transactions” associated with the fund. They say the funds were transferred to a shell company, The Prime Management Service Ltd, with a “significant portion” of the funds invested in personal insurance products.
Chan said the beneficiary of those products was the director of the shell company, who was one of the four people arrested. While police did not name the man, he was named in media as Tony Wong, director of The Prime Management Service Ltd. Wong did not respond to VICE News’ requests for comment via a contact number on his LinkedIn page, which described the company as a removal, cleaning, and pest control company.
As well as accusing the group of using the funds for personal gain, Chan said investigators were also probing whether the money was being used an inducement for people to take part in the protests.
“We do not exclude the possibility that the fund is used as a reward to encourage teenagers to come out and join in the civil unrest,” he said.
Spark Alliance’s financial activities first came under scrutiny last month, when HSBC said it was closing the group’s account after detecting “activity differing from the stated purpose of the company account.”
While some protesters have accused the bank of shuttering Spark Alliance’s account due to political pressure, the bank said in a statement Friday the decision had nothing to do with the “current Hong Kong situation.”
Regardless, legal experts and pro-democracy groups have raised doubts about the police allegations against Spark Alliance. Barrister Margaret Ng, a trustee of the other major fund providing financial support to the protests, the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund, told Commercial Radio Hong Kong Friday she believed the arrests were a naked attempt to suppress the protest movement.
But she predicted the police’s actions would only inflame public anger and lead to increased support for other funds supporting the protests, the Hong Kong Free Press reported.
“The police froze a fund, so another fund will pop up, because these groups are self-organized by civilians,” she said.
Cover image: Police officials collect arrows left over by protesters at the compound at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University campus in Hong Kong, Thursday, Nov. 28, 2019. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)