A prominent member of a pro-democracy group that has organized mass marches in Hong Kong's months-long anti-government protests was brutally attacked late Wednesday, his group said.
Jimmy Sham, 32, was attacked by four to five people with hammers in the Mong Kok area of Kowloon before he was found lying on the ground and bleeding from his head, according to the Civil Human Rights Front.
Sham is conscious and in stable condition but needs to remain in hospital for a while for head injuries that required stitches, according to the group.
The police said they are investigating the attack, while officers would be assigned to protect him.
Figo Chan, a senior member of the group, said the mastermind behind the attack may have wanted to use the incident to deter people from taking part in the march planned Sunday, as Sham was also attacked Aug. 29, before a major march.
"This is not an isolated case. Even the police have said the attack was possibly premeditated," Chan said.
The police, citing eyewitnesses, said the perpetrators in Wednesday's attack bludgeoned Sham for over 10 seconds and left swiftly in a vehicle. They were wearing same-colored outfits, with face masks on, they said.
For the Aug. 29 case, the police have arrested three men, two of whom were charged with "conspiracy to assault occasioning actual bodily harm" and traffic offences. The remaining one was on bail for further investigation, police said.
The police are investigating whether the two attacks are related.
"It's a shame that even the convener of the Civil Human Rights Front, a group that supports only peaceful and rational protests, would be targeted," pro-democracy opposition legislator Tanya Chan said.
"Could it be possible that someone wants to stir up more chaos in Hong Kong and use that as an excuse to suspend or cancel the district council election?"
Sham is slated to stand in a district council election on Nov. 24.
"Jimmy has asked (people) not to take any action as revenge against any particular group of ethnicity, because we have to focus on the system that causes violence in Hong Kong," said Eric Lai, another member of the group.
During a session in the territory's legislature on Thursday, which was disrupted by opposition legislators for the second straight day, Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam reiterated her call for all Hong Kong people to reject violence.
"If there continue to be many people expressing understanding to the behavior of a small group of rioters, their behavior will worsen and (we) will only be farther away from the goal of making peace," she said.
Sunday's march is expected to draw a large crowd as the anti-government protests mark the 20th weekend since they were sparked in June over a now-suspended unpopular bill that would allow extradition of suspects to mainland China.
Protesters' demands have widened to include an independent inquiry into police use of violent tactics against them, pardons for all those arrested and democratic reform, while the unrest has turned increasingly violent.
While agreeing to withdraw the bill, Lam has rejected the other demands.
The U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China said on its Twitter account that the attacks against Sham and a few other district council election candidates in recent weeks were "unacceptable acts of violence that seem intended to intimidate the people of #HongKong ahead of elections in November. We call on the #HK govt to bring the perpetrators of these attacks to justice swiftly."
Amnesty International also urged a prompt and thorough investigation into Sham's attack so as to send a clear message that there are consequences for targeting activists.
"Even in the context of increasing attacks on activists, this incident is shocking in its brutality," Joshua Rosenzweig, head of the group's East Asia Regional Office, said in a statement. "The authorities must...bring all those responsible to justice...Anything less would send a chilling signal that such attacks are tolerated by the authorities."
Chief Secretary for Administration Matthew Cheung, the government's No. 2 figure, said in a phone-in radio program Thursday that Sham's attack was absolutely unacceptable.
"We cannot tolerate violence in whatever form, the government has attached great importance to (the case). The police have stated as well that they will pursue the case, to protect the safety of Hong Kong citizens," he said.