A pro-democracy activist in Hong Kong has said that Chinese agents drove staples into his legs after he asked soccer star Lionel Messi to send a message of support for a jailed Chinese dissident.
The bizarre episode has heightened concerns about the erosion of the rule of law in Hong Kong as the mainland authorities try to exert greater control over the semiautonomous Chinese city’s freewheeling politics.
At a news conference in Hong Kong, the activist, Howard Lam, a member of the Democratic Party, displayed metal staples in his thighs that he said were put there by men who abducted and beat him.
In early July, Lam wrote to FC Barcelona, the Spanish soccer club, to ask for a signed photograph of Messi, the Argentine soccer star. Friends said that the jailed Chinese dissident, Liu Xiaobo, was a fan of the player and the team, and that after Lam learned Liu had late-stage liver cancer, he sought to send the photo to him. But Lam did not receive the picture until after Liu, a Nobel laureate, died July 13.
Lam said he had received a phone call earlier in the week from a man speaking Mandarin, a language not much used among Hong Kong’s Cantonese speakers. The man warned him not to give the Messi photo to Liu’s wife, Liu Xia.
Liu Xia was put under house arrest after her husband, who had been imprisoned for organizing a pro-democracy manifesto known as Charter 08, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010. She has remained under the strict control of the Chinese authorities since her husband’s death.
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Lam said he was shopping Thursday for a trip to the United States in the Mong Kok district of Hong Kong when two men approached him. “We’d like to have a chat,” they said in Mandarin before forcing him into a van, he said.
The men hit him, took his phone and forced him to inhale something that made him faint, Lam said. When he awoke, he had been stripped to his underwear and tied up, he said. The men began to question him about Liu Xia and warned him not to “cause trouble.”
Lam said the men asked him whether he was Christian, then one said he would “give you some crosses” and drove staples into his legs in a cross pattern. He said he lost consciousness after again being forced to inhale something and woke early Friday on a remote beach.
At the news conference Friday, Lam Cheuk-ting, a Democratic Party lawmaker, said, “Kidnapping, threatening and torturing Hong Kong people is a very serious crime in Hong Kong, no matter their identity, whether they’re from mainland authorities or not.”
“I urge the Hong Kong government to conduct a full investigation,” he added. “And we want to send a very clear message to the Chinese authority that this kind of incident should not happen and should not happen again.”
The purported assault is the latest in a series of episodes that have left many in Hong Kong worried about China’s authoritarian influence. The city, a former British colony that was returned to Chinese rule 20 years ago, was promised that it could maintain its own political, legal and economic systems until 2047.
Last month, Hong Kong officials announced plans for a new high-speed rail station that will lease an area to mainland customs, immigration and quarantine officers who will be able to enforce mainland Chinese law.
In late 2015, five booksellers from a Hong Kong company that published political potboilers about the Chinese leadership disappeared and ended up in custody in mainland China. Four were released after making televised confessions, but one remains in detention.
In January, a well-connected mainland billionaire, Xiao Jianhua, was taken from a Hong Kong hotel in a wheelchair. He is now believed to be helping the mainland authorities with financial investigations, and one possible target is the troubled conglomerate Dalian Wanda.
Since November, Hong Kong courts have removed six pro-democracy lawmakers over issues with their oaths of office, depriving their allies of enough votes to maintain a veto against the Legislative Council’s pro-Beijing camp.
And RTHK, a public broadcaster in Hong Kong, said Friday that it was dropping its 24-hour relay of BBC radio and would instead broadcast China National Radio, a state-run channel.
While Hong Kong is one of the world’s safest cities, journalists, activists and pro-democracy politicians have sometimes been targeted with violence. Three years ago, a former chief editor of a newspaper was slashed with a meat cleaver. And in 2006, Lam was injured as he tried to help another Democratic Party lawmaker, Albert Ho, who was assaulted at a McDonald’s by men with bats and clubs.
Lam told reporters Friday that he had yet to go to the police or the hospital because he first wanted to show the staples in his legs and his injuries.
Hong Kong’s police commissioner, Stephen Lo, said police attached “great importance” to the case and guaranteed a “thorough investigation.”
“This is a very serious allegation, and I urge any citizen if they really have this sort of thing happen on themselves, they should report to the police immediately,” he told reporters Friday afternoon.
Ho said that it was unclear whom the men were working for but that the attack was meant to send a message.
“The assailants drove the staples in his thighs,” he said. “It was painful, but it wasn’t meant to cause grievous injury. It was meant as a threat for all to see.”