Print Edition - 2019-06-15  |  On Saturday

Police violence at Hong Kong protests puts government on defensive

- THE NEW YORK TIMES, HONG KONG 

Jun 15, 2019-

With the government on the defensive after a day of violent clashes between protesters and police, the president of Hong Kong’s legislature on Thursday agreed to delay by at least two days consideration of a contentious bill that would allow extraditions to mainland China.

Aiming to keep the pressure on, the Civil Human Rights Front, which organized a protest against the bill that drew as many as 1 million people last weekend, called on residents to take to the streets again this coming Sunday. The group also called for schools, shops and workers to go on strike Monday.

Tens of thousands of demonstrators opposed to the bill surrounded the Legislative Council building Wednesday and prevented lawmakers from meeting as planned to move the legislation on an accelerated schedule toward a vote next week. When some protesters charged the police in an attempt to enter the building, riot control officers opened fire with rubber bullets and more than 150 canisters of tear gas.

Almost all the protesters dispersed overnight, and an uneasy and perhaps temporary calm returned to the streets of Hong Kong on Thursday. The government closed its main offices and security remained tight around the Legislative Council Complex. As thunderstorms rolled across the city, trash crews cleared away surgical masks, water bottles and other debris from the clashes.

The police arrested 11 protesters for illegal assembly, disorderly conduct, assaulting officers and other riot-related offenses, Hong Kong’s police chief, Stephen Lo, told reporters. The clashes left 22 officers injured, he added.

Authorities said a total of 81 people were treated in hospitals for injuries from the clashes.

Claudia Mo, a pro-democracy legislator, welcomed the delay in the legislative debate, which was announced by the president of the legislature, Andrew Leung. “It’s the right thing to do” given the size of the protests, Mo said in an interview at the Legislative Council.

Leung gave no indication of when the legislature would resume deliberations on the bill. He had previously said a vote could take place next Thursday after more than 60 hours of debate.

Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, who has championed the legislation, did not immediately comment. On Wednesday, she compared the protesters to spoiled children and vowed to keep fighting for the extradition law.

Video footage of the police response draws accusations of excessive force.

Video recordings of Wednesday’s protests in which the police appear to be using excessive force have been circulated widely across social media and have led human rights groups and opposition lawmakers to condemn the tactics.

In one video, a police officer appears to shoot a protester in the face with a rubber bullet. Another shows an officer continuously shooting pepper spray into the face of a seemingly unarmed man, and a third captures a male protester being beaten to the ground by a group of officers armed with batons.

The New York Times was unable to confirm the provenance and authenticity of every video, but the local news media vouched for some of them and many of the details were consistent with Wednesday’s events.

Officers in riot gear fired tear gas, pepper spray and projectiles known as bean bag rounds or “supersock rounds” as well as rubber bullets when a crowd of protesters tried to enter the Legislative Council on Wednesday. The protesters who arrived at the gates of the complex hurled bricks, water bottles and umbrellas at the line of armored officers.

The use of rubber bullets represented a turning point in the police response and was the first time the government acknowledged using the nonlethal rounds in Hong Kong in decades. The police response following the protesters’ push toward the Legislative Council was noticeably more aggressive as peaceful protests became more pitched throughout the day.

Hong Kong’s police chief, Stephen Lo, defended his officers’ actions Thursday, saying they had been “restrained and tolerant” and had used an appropriate amount of force. He said the officers only responded with force after protesters attempted to storm the legislative council.

One video circulated by the Hong Kong-based newspaper Apple Daily appeared to show a protester who had already fallen to the ground being beaten by a group of helmet-clad riot police wielding batons and shields.

Perhaps the most prominent of voices to condemn the police’s use of force was Anson Chan, Hong Kong’s second-highest official during the initial years after the territory’s return to Chinese rule in 1997.

Chan said the images broadcast around the world on Wednesday had damaged Hong Kong’s international reputation. “It is like you are firing at defenseless young people,” she said.

“The ugly scenes of police using tear gas and pepper spray against overwhelmingly peaceful protesters is a violation of international law,” Man-kei Tam, director of Amnesty International Hong Kong, said in a statement Wednesday. “Police have a duty to maintain public order, but in doing so they may use force only when strictly necessary.

Human Rights Watch also condemned what it called the use of “unnecessary and excessive force” in a statement Wednesday.

Protests prompt new calls for Hong Kong’s leader to resign.

The clashes between the police and protesters fueled a fresh round of attacks on Hong Kong’s embattled chief executive, Carrie Lam, and new demands Thursday that she withdraw the unpopular extradition bill.

In marches, signed petitions and candid public statements, politicians who days ago sounded resigned to the passage of the law appeared ready for a fight.

A group of about a dozen lawmakers, representing the pan-democracy camp of the Legislative Council, led a peaceful march Thursday from the building where a day earlier protesters clashed with the police, to Lam’s residence.

The marchers, who walked through a thunderstorm, were joined by a group of police officers who actively stopped them from reaching Lam’s home.

“It is very far from acceptable,” Au Nok-hin, a pan-democrat said of the officers’ effort to block them.

Lam, who was handpicked by the central government in Beijing, has showed little interest in withdrawing the legislation and has compared the protesters to spoiled children. After a day of protests that at times turned violent, 200 members of the Election Committee, the body that anoints the territory’s chief executive, published an open letter Wednesday night calling Lam to resign.

“We believe that Carrie Lam has lost political legitimacy and must step down,” the letter said. “A new chief executive should be elected instead.”

The Election Committee, is composed of 1,194 people who represent the city’s different industrial sectors. Many of those who signed the letter are known to be democrats who openly supported Lam’s opponents in the last election.

Twenty committee members, who represent the city’s lawyers, signed a separate petition condemning the tactics of the police Wednesday, which they characterized as excessive. A number of former senior officials joined in the criticism of Lam and the bill, and attacked the actions of the police.

Lam’s decision to push ahead despite such strong opposition is “nothing short of a dictator’s act,” said Joseph Wong, a former civil service secretary who also called on an independent council to investigate the police’s use of force. In an open letter to Lam, seven other former senior officials urged her to withdraw the bill.

Despite signs that the protests and organized political action had slowed the bill’s passage, some pan-democratic lawmakers acknowledged that it was all but inevitable because of the pro-Beijing camp’s legislative majority.

“Whatever tactics we use, they don’t care,” lawmaker Charles Mok said. “That’s why people are so mad.”

‘I hope it all works out,’ Trump says of the protests.

While the leaders of democracies from around the world condemned the violence seen in the streets Wednesday and called on the governments of Hong Kong and China to heed the will of the people, President Donald Trump had a slightly different message.

“I hope it all works out for China and for Hong Kong,” said Trump, who has used typically less reconciliatory language in his continuing trade war with Beijing.

“I understand the reason for the demonstration, but I’m sure they will be able to work it out,” he added without offering specifics.

His remarks contrasted with those of other members of his party and administration, who have more forcefully condemned both the extradition law and the response to the protests. Some members of Congress suggested last month that if the law were to take effect, it could upend the special status Washington accords the territory. Under a 1992 agreement, Hong Kong is the beneficiary of more liberal visa and investment regulations than the rest of China.

Also Wednesday, Prime Minister Theresa May of Britain said her government was “concerned” about the developments in Hong Kong and said any changes to the extradition law had to be in accord with an agreement signed in 1997 between Britain and China at the time of the city’s handover.

Published: 15-06-2019 11:16

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