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HONG KONG (Reuters) - Hong Kong police arrested nine pro-democracy activists on Thursday over a protest outside China's representative office in November, a move some said was a bid to stifle opposition before Chinese President Xi Jinping's expected visit in July.
The arrests in the Chinese-ruled city came a day after two disqualified pro-independence legislators were charged over a separate incident in November when they tried to barge into a meeting of the Legislative Council.
The issue of independence, for long taboo in Hong Kong and anathema to Communist Party rulers in Beijing, has gained momentum since pro-democracy protests in 2014 failed to secure concessions from China.
Hong Kong, a former British colony, returned to Chinese rule in 1997, since when China has gradually increased control even though it promised wide-ranging freedoms and autonomy under the formula of "one country, two systems", along with an undated promise of universal suffrage.
Twenty years later, only 1,200 people on an "election committee" stacked with Beijing loyalists voted Carrie Lam into power as the new chief executive last month, sparking some scuffles and protests.
Including the disqualified legislators charged on Wednesday, ten out of the city's 30 democratically elected opposition lawmakers are fighting court cases.
Student protest leader Joshua Wong, who also founded the political party Demosisto, said in a statement that the government was "recklessly speeding up prosecutions against activists" to "wipe out" their influence ahead of President Xi's expected visit.
No official announcements have been made, but by protocol Xi is expected to oversee the swearing-in of Carrie Lam on July 1, the 20th anniversary of the handover to China.
Lam has vowed to mend social divisions, but the opposition camp said reconciliation would be futile when at least 20 activists, including the leaders of the 2014 protests that paralysed parts of the city for months, have been charged since her selection.
The nine arrested on Thursday were charged with incitement, taking part in an unlawful assembly, obstructing and assaulting police. They were all released on bail.
The charges relate to a Nov. 6 demonstration when thousands protested against an interpretation by Beijing of Hong Kong's mini-constitution, the Basic Law, which activists denounced as interference.
One of the nine, student and Demosisto standing committee member Derek Lam, 23, was charged with inciting others to behave in a disorderly manner in public.
Lam said he believed the city's outgoing chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, wanted to scare off the opposition before he steps down.
"He is clearly trying to ... scare those who want to fight for democracy, the legislators and the students, through arrests and legal tactics," Lam told reporters outside the police station.
Leung's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The police said it a statement they would handle cases "in a fair and impartial manner irrespective of the backgrounds of the persons concerned".
The two disqualified legislators, Yau Wai-ching, 25, and Baggio Leung, 30, were told to appear in court on Friday.
They represent a new breed of more radical activists moving into the political mainstream. They had their swearing-in oaths invalidated in October after they used language deemed derogatory to China and displayed a banner declaring "Hong Kong is not China".
Reporting by Venus Wu and Pak Yiu; Editing by Nick Macfie