By Kane Wu
HONG KONG, Feb 29 (Reuters) - The U.S. State Department has expressed concern after Chinese-ruled Hong Kong arrested publishing tycoon Jimmy Lai, an outspoken critic of Beijing, and two pro-democracy activists.
The arrests come after a period of relative calm following months of anti-government protests over perceptions that China is tightening its grip on the city, though Beijing denies meddling and blames the West for fomenting unrest.
Lai and veteran democracy activists Lee Cheuk-yan and Yeung Sum, were arrested on Friday in the Asian financial hub on charges of illegal assembly, drawing condemnation from international rights groups, media said.
"We are concerned by the arrest of prominent Hong Kong businessman and publisher Jimmy Lai and two other longtime advocates for civil liberties and democracy," Morgan Ortagus, a spokeswoman for the U.S. State Department, said on Friday.
"We expect Hong Kong authorities not to use law enforcement selectively for political purposes, and to handle cases fairly and transparently," she added in a statement.
The spokeswoman also called for the rule of law and Hong Kong people's rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of expression to be preserved.
The police said three local men, aged 63 to 72, were arrested for suspected participation in a non-approved gathering but did not confirm their names.
Authorities in the former British colony have arrested more than 7,000 people for involvement in Hong Kong's protests, many on charges of rioting that can carry jail terms of up to 10 years. It is unclear how many are still in custody.
The arrest of the three men was outrageous, said Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong, adding that there was no doubt its government was acting at Beijing's instructions.
"This decision will send yet another signal to the world that the Chinese Communist Party is intent on throttling decency and freedom in Hong Kong," Patten said.
Lai, a self-made millionaire who has made financial contributions to Hong Kong's pro-democracy movement and been a target of criticism by mainland Chinese media, was arrested in 2014 for refusing to leave a key pro-democracy protest site.
After the arrest he resigned as editor in chief of Apple Daily. He has also come under scrutiny from Hong Kong's anti-graft agency, which raided his home in 2014.
In an editorial on Friday, China's state-owned Global Times tabloid called Lai "a force of evil", rather than the "hero" of democracy painted by the West.
"..he is a traitor, a criminal and a force of evil who has sowed violence and chaos in arguably one of the freest and most prosperous cities in the world," it added. (Reporting by Kane Wu; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)
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