Hong Kong police say they have frozen about $9 million in funds raised by anti-government protesters, and arrested four members of a prominent fundraising group on allegations of money laundering.
Chan Wai-kei, the acting superintendent of the Hong Kong Police Narcotics Bureau’s financial investigation division, said Thursday that police also seized about $16,700 in cash, 3,300 supermarket coupons, two lasers pointers, six arrows and “a lot” of protective gear.
Chan said the four suspects were connected to the Spark Alliance, a nonprofit formed in 2016 that helps arrested protesters to pay their legal fees. The group has raised $2.3 million in donations in the past six months, police said.
Over 6,000 people have been arrested during more than six months of political unrest in the semiautonomous Chinese city. Many face charges of rioting, which is punishable by up to 10 years in prison.
Police allege that some of the donations to Spark Alliance were diverted to a shell company, and some were used to purchase personal insurance products. One of the four people arrested is the beneficiary of the insurance policies and the owner of the shell company, Chan said.
Chan did not directly answer questions from reporters about whether donating to a legal defense fund counts as money laundering.
“Money laundering means you continue to handle the money even when you know it’s gained from unlawful activities,” he said.
Spark Alliance said on its Facebook page that Hong Kong police represented its actions in “a fraudulent fashion,” and accused authorities of “smearing the Spark Alliance and other (protester) support channels.”
The group said it would not comment further as those arrested had retained lawyers and are currently involved in legal proceedings.
In response to the arrests, dozens of protesters dressed in black and wearing masks gathered outside the headquarters of banking group HSBC in Hong Kong’s central business district Friday. Spark Alliance said on its Facebook page in November that it was closing its HSBC account, but did not explain why.
HSBC said in a statement that its decision to close the account was “unrelated” to the situation in Hong Kong.
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“Whenever we spot activity differing from the stated purpose of the account or we identify unusual transactions, we will work with our customers to obtain the right information. Over the last few months in working with the customer these requirements were not met and therefore we closed their account,” the bank said.
HSBC has tightened its anti-money laundering controls and procedures in recent years in the aftermath of a nearly $2 billion settlement it reached with the US government in 2012 over allegations of drug money laundering.
The ongoing protests in Hong Kong began in opposition to a bill that would have allowed the city to extradite suspected criminals to mainland China, which operates a different legal system.
Millions took to the streets in June to voice their opposition to the bill. It was eventually killed but not before the movement widened in scope to include calls for universal suffrage and greater police accountability.
Protesters fear that Beijing is further encroaching on the city and threatening the freedoms enjoyed in Hong Kong but not in mainland China.