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Hong Kong Police Face Criticism Over Force Used at Protests

HONG KONG — Hong Kong’s security forces faced widespread criticism on Thursday over the tear gas and rubber bullets that local police used a day earlier to suppress tens of thousands of people demonstrating against an unpopular bill that would allow extraditions to mainland China.

Criticism of the security force’s measures came swiftly, and raised the political cost for Carrie Lam, chief executive of Hong Kong, who firmly supports the bill. Debate on the legislation, which had been postponed from Wednesday to Thursday, was again postponed for at least two more days.

Videos of the protests in which officers appear to be using excessive force circulated widely across social media, and the police action was condemned by pro-democracy activists, human rights groups and opposition lawmakers.

Footage of unarmed protesters fleeing like ants from clouds of tear gas or facing off with riot police officers pointing batons at them was broadcast around the world, an unfamiliar sight in the wealthy Asian financial hub famed for its glitzy skyscrapers.

Even a number of former senior officials joined in criticizing the police actions, as well as the bill. Joseph Wong, a former civil service secretary, told a local broadcaster that Mrs. Lam’s decision to push ahead with the measure despite such strong opposition was “nothing short of a dictator’s act,” and called for an independent review of the police’s use of force.

The Hong Kong police chief defended his officers, saying they were mostly restrained but had to respond with force when some protesters tried to storm the Legislative Council.

Instead of pushing back the small group of demonstrators, however, officers appeared determined to use tear gas and rubber bullets over the vast majority of protesters in order to clear the roads around the building that they had occupied.

On Thursday, tensions had eased, though the police physically prevented a group of pro-democracy lawmakers from completing a symbolic protest march toward Mrs. Lam’s residence. Some of the lawmakers lamented that their hometown, normally a peaceful haven for bankers, lawyers and traders, had begun to feel like a police state.

“Hong Kong is fast becoming just like any Chinese city,” said Claudia Mo, one of the pro-democracy lawmakers, during an interview at the Legislative Council before the walk began. “The police attitude is rather like what happened on Tiananmen Square 30 years ago.”

Further protests are planned for Sunday.

Tempers are running high across Hong Kong in part because some see the fight against the bill as a last stand of sorts against a significant erosion of the civil liberties that set this territory apart from the rest of China.

“The survival of the city is at stake,” Lee Cheuk-yan, a veteran activist and former lawmaker who helped to organize the march last weekend, said on Thursday. He also called on schools, shops and workers to go on strike on Monday, after Sunday’s protests, in another effort to stop the bill from passing.

On Wednesday, the founder of a smartphone messaging app, Telegram, said his service had been attacked during the protests, likely by China’s government. The report of the hack came a day after the Hong Kong police arrested a 22-year-old protest organizer who was the administrator for a group being used to coordinate thousands of demonstrators.

The extradition bill would allow Hong Kong to detain and transfer people wanted in countries and territories with which it has no formal extradition agreements, including the Chinese mainland. The bill is widely expected to eventually pass because a pro-Beijing political faction controls the Legislative Council.

Lawyers’ associations, rights organizations, opposition lawmakers and even foreign governments have said they worry that the bill would break down a firewall between Hong Kong’s legal system and the courts in mainland China, which are answerable to the ruling Communist Party.

They say it would also further diminish the “high degree of autonomy” that was promised under the “one country, two systems” arrangement that was established when the British handed over Hong Kong to China in 1997.

In pushing the extradition bill, Mrs. Lam has tried to distance herself from Beijing, saying the law would address a legal loophole urgently needed to ensure that a Hong Kong man accused of killing his girlfriend in Taiwan last year does not go free.

Anger over the extradition bill has been brewing for months. In May, pandemonium broke out in the Legislative Council when opposition and pro-Beijing lawmakers clashed over it. Discussions became so heated that one lawmaker was carried out of the chamber on a stretcher.

The outpouring of opposition by ordinary Hong Kongers began in earnest last weekend, when as many as one million people marched against the bill and China’s growing influence in the territory.

On Wednesday, tens of thousands of demonstrators opposed to the bill surrounded the Legislative Council building and prevented lawmakers from meeting as scheduled to move the bill toward a vote next week. When some protesters charged the police as they tried to enter the building, riot control officers opened fire with rubber bullets and tear gas, casting a smoky pall over downtown.

The government later said 81 people had been injured.

Mrs. Lam, who was selected by China’s leaders to govern Hong Kong two years ago, stood firm on Wednesday against what she called an “organized riot.”

But her comments only further inflamed her critics. One of them, the pro-democracy lawmaker Charles Mok, said on Thursday that by having police officers clear the protesters with such force, Mrs. Lam had effectively used them to solve a political problem.

“The only riot problem is the riot police,” Mr. Mok said.

As Mr. Mok spoke, signs of open dissent against Mrs. Lam were emerging in some corners of the city’s political establishment.

The night before, for example, 200 members of the nearly-1,200-member Election Committee, the body that anoints the territory’s chief executive, had published an open letter calling on Mrs. 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.”

Many legal analysts say the legislation was a rushed job.

When the Hong Kong government proposes an amendment to existing laws it must go through three readings, the first of which is simply a formality.

The extradition bill had its first reading in April and under normal circumstances, a committee would have been set up to discuss the spirit of the bill and other legal concerns. But the Hong Kong government chose to skip that step and head straight to a second reading, initially planned for Wednesday.

The president of the Legislative Council has the power to dictate when and how long lawmakers can debate a proposed law before its third and final reading. Andrew Leung, the current president, allocated only 61 hours of debate for the law, which based on the original Wednesday schedule, would have meant that a vote on the law would have been held next Thursday.

This is an unusually short period of time for debating a bill that has caused much consternation, said Kenneth Chan, an associate professor and director of the Comparative Governance and Policy Research Center at Hong Kong Baptist University.

“Procedurally it was wrong given the controversy involved,” Mr. Chan said. “The government should actually re-engage the people.”

The government set aside 20 days for a public consultation before moving the extradition bill to the legislature. Other bills routinely get more time.

In April, for example, the government began a consultation on proposals for enhancing animal welfare. It allocated three months.

Source: NYT > World

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