Arrested activists say police obtained personal bank records without consent

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Hong Kong authorities are scrutinizing the financial records of pro-democracy activists as they crack down on political opposition, according to some activists and a senior bank executive.

Six pro-democracy activists told Reuters that Hong Kong police obtained some of their bank records without their consent and questioned them about certain transactions after they were arrested earlier this month on suspicion of subversion under the National Security Law.

The number of requests for financial records by Hong Kong police has more than doubled over the past six months or so, an executive at a major retail bank in Hong Kong with direct knowledge of the matter told Reuters.

The executive said the number of people affected likely remains in double figures overall. The person said the increase was due to requests for information about pro-democracy activists.

The increasing use of bank records in questioning activists, which has not previously been reported, shows police are using the full extent of their powers to investigate people suspected of breaking the stringent National Security Law, introduced on June 30, according to the six activists.

Some of the banks involved include HSBC Holdings and its Hang Seng Bank subsidiary, Citigroup Inc unit Citibank and Standard Chartered. Representatives of those banks declined to comment on individual accounts.

Banks in Hong Kong have little choice but to comply with police requests, the senior bank executive told Reuters: “The aggrieved party can go to the court if they think their accounts were frozen or their transaction details were shared for wrong reasons, but there’s very little we can do here.”

A Hong Kong police representative declined to comment on why officers were seeking activists’ financial records, saying the department would not disclose details of its operations or investigations. The Hong Kong government did not respond to a request for comment on how or why police sought the bank information of arrested suspects.

Police in Hong Kong, as in most places in the world, have long been able to request customer information from banks as part of criminal investigations. Reuters could not determine whether the national security law has made it easier for police to get hold of individuals’ bank records.

The law does not mention access to bank information. It does give authorities the power to seize funds they believe are the proceeds of, or are intended to be used for, breaking the national security law. Authorities have not announced the seizure of any funds under that provision.

A spokeswoman for the Hong Kong Monetary Authority, which regulates the banking sector, said: “Financial institutions are expected to cooperate with (law enforcement agencies) on investigations and law enforcement actions.”