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Hong Kong’s national security police detained four prominent democracy activists on Wednesday, prompting condemnation from the White House and signaling that the city’s crackdown on political dissidents isn’t yet over.

Among those arrested by the police were 90-year-old Cardinal Joseph Zen, former lawmaker and barrister Margaret Ng, 74, and Canto-pop singer Denise Ho for allegedly “colluding” with foreign forces, according to local media reports. The four were taken to separate police stations before being released later on bail, according to news outlet RTHK.

The arrests are the latest move against democracy activists in the Asian financial hub, which has seen most of its political opposition jailed following unprecedented democracy protests in 2019. The police operation also comes shortly after John Lee, Hong Kong’s former security chief and a vocal supporter of the China-imposed national security law, was selected to be the city’s new leader in a contest where he was the only candidate.

A spokeswoman for the Hong Kong police didn’t immediately comment when asked about the arrests, which led to a statement from White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre that also blamed China’s government.

“Freedom of expression are critical to prosperous and secure societies,” Jean-Pierre told reporters aboard Air Force One with U.S. President Joe Biden. She called on Hong Kong and China to stop “targeting Hong Kong’s advocates and to immediately release those who have been unjustly detained and charged.”

‘Ominous sign’

Italy’s Ansa news agency reported that Vatican Spokesman Matteo Bruni said “The Holy See has learned with concern the news of the arrest of Cardinal Zen and is following the evolution of the situation with extreme attention.”

The cardinal and the other two were among five trustees of the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund, which was established to provide financial assistance to those involved in anti-government protests in 2019 and came under intense scrutiny by the authorities over the past year, according to the report, citing people it didn’t identify. A fourth trustee, Hui Po Keung, was arrested Tuesday as he was about to leave for Germany, according to the South China Morning Post.

“Arresting a 90-year-old cardinal for his peaceful activities has to be a shocking new low for Hong Kong, illustrating the city’s free fall in human rights in the past two years,” Maya Wang, a senior China researcher at the advocacy group Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. The arrests are “an ominous sign” that China’s crackdown on Hong Kong “is only going to escalate,” she added.

The arrests come a day before Biden is scheduled to meet with leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Washington, where they are set to discuss “regional and international issues of common interest and concern.”

Officials at the State Department didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment about the reported arrests.

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