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Pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong speaks to the media while holding up a bail document after leaving the central police station in Hong Kong, on Sept. 24, 2020. He was arrested for unlawful assembly related to a 2019 protest against a government ban on masks.ISAAC LAWRENCE/AFP/Getty Images

Police in Hong Kong have arrested Joshua Wong, the city’s best-known young activist, as authorities move against the most prominent figures of a pro-democracy movement Beijing is trying to snuff out.

Supporters of Mr. Wong, 23, said on Twitter that his arrest early Thursday afternoon was related to his participation in an unauthorized assembly on Oct. 5, 2019, a day of violent protest after a law banning masks came into effect. Mr. Wong is also accused of violating the mask law. He was released with orders to appear in court Sept. 30.

“They can prosecute us, they can arrest us, they can lock us up in prison – but they can’t censor our commitment to continue to fight for freedom,” Mr. Wong said as he held up a bail document.

It’s “time to let the world know how the judicial system is being weaponized” by authorities “to silence the voice of dissidents,” he said.

Although he has been arrested numerous times and has served time in jail, his detention Thursday follows the imposition in July of a national security law on Hong Kong that has been used by police to monitor, search and arrest some of the city’s most famous activists.

Mr. Wong is “an icon,” and his supporters worry he will “be sentenced for a long time in order to intimidate others,” said Albert Ho, a lawyer and former legislator with the city’s Democratic Party who was arrested this year along with 14 others labelled “riot leaders” by Chinese state media. He now faces more than a dozen charges.

Mr. Wong came to prominence as a teenage opponent of plans to introduce a “moral and national education” curriculum, seen as a bid to insert pro-Beijing thought into Hong Kong classrooms. He then became one of the leaders of the 2014 umbrella protests that occupied parts of the city’s downtown for more than two months.

Since then he has often served as a voice for those in Hong Kong trying to rebuff Beijing’s tightening grip on the city. His views have been sought out by foreign political leaders and media organizations alike, and he has galvanized opposition at home by drawing attention to local injustices and the controversial policies of the Chinese state.

He has been the most important “generator of energy of the social movement of Hong Kong,” said Eddie Chu, an activist and politician in the city. " If we lose Joshua Wong right now, the movement will become much weaker."

Earlier this year, Mr. Wong was disqualified from running for legislative elections, only to see those elections postponed for a year. He has reported being under surveillance for months by unknown people in cars.

His arrest comes amid a months-long series of enforcement actions in Hong Kong that has seen the arrests of pro-democracy leaders such as publisher Jimmy Lai, legal icon Martin Lee, politician Agnes Chow and, also on Thursday, veteran activist Koo Sze-yiu, who is undergoing treatment for cancer.

Last month a dozen people were arrested by mainland authorities after attempting to flee Hong Kong by boat. They have been kept incommunicado in mainland China, which accuses them of separatism. Mr. Wong has sought to draw attention to their harsh treatment, calling it a violation of human rights on Thursday.

Hong Kong police and local leaders have said they are applying the law equally, telling local media that Mr. Wong had knowingly broken the law by participating in an unauthorized assembly and breaking the newly imposed mask ban.

The legality of the mask ban, imposed after protesters covered their faces during scuffles with police that involved the heavy use of tear gas, has been fiercely contested in court.

“The police are now taking revenge action against democracy activists,” said Hong Kong activist and former politician Lee Cheuk-yan. “We are all worried that the Hong Kong government may strike” Mr. Wong under the national security law, which can result in much more serious sentences.

The new law makes Hong Kong subject to Beijing’s definitions of secession, subversion, terrorism and foreign influence. Its imposition has altered the judicial balance of power in Hong Kong, with local leaders declaring that the separation of powers does not exist in a city where Beijing and the local executive are pre-eminent.

Mr. Wong has not been charged under the national security law, “but who knows what happens next,” said Jeffrey Ngo, a historian who has been a close associate of Mr. Wong’s. His arrest is “really a kind of ‘he lives to fight another day’ scenario.”

Last week James Spigelman, an Australian judge serving on Hong Kong’s highest appeals court, resigned, telling the Australian Broadcasting Corp. that his decision was “related to the content of the national security legislation.”

Other foreign judges have not followed him, however, including Beverley McLachlin, a former chief justice of Canada’s Supreme Court who now serves on the Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal.

“I remain a member of the Court,” she told The Globe and Mail in an e-mail this week. She said she could not comment further. Last summer, she told The Globe that “the courts in Hong Kong remain independent and impartial,” a status that now seems dubious under the national security law.

Though human-rights advocates in Canada have called for Justice McLachlin to step down in protest, there are also good reasons for someone like her to stay on, said Mr. Ho.

“I appreciate the courage of the Australian judge to step down and then the courage to speak the truth,” he said. “But I would also appreciate judges who decide to stay behind and then stand firm on principles and say no to what is wrong.”

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