This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
Hong Kong police have been the target of mounting public criticism over their use of force during protests outside the city’s legislature on June 12against plans to allow extraditions to mainland China.
Police fired a total of 150 tear gas canisters, 20 bean-bag rounds and a handful of rubber bullets during the clashes, which the ruling Chinese Communist Party-controlled media and Hong Kong police officers described as a “riot.”
At least 81 protesters and 22 police officers were injured in the clashes, according to official figures, although doctors have later reported patients who were too afraid to seek treatment for their injuries for fear that police would access hospital data to locate and arrest them following several in-hospital arrests.
But eyewitnesses told RFA that claims by chief executive Carrie Lam that the violence was necessary “to maintain law and order” glossed over the unnecessary use of force in ways that endangered unarmed and mostly young protesters.
Meanwhile, large numbers of video clips and photos posted to social media showed police beating protesters with batons, or close-ups of people’s traumatic flesh-wounds after they were hit by textile or rubber bullets.
In other clips, police in full riot gear fired pepper spray into the eyes and faces of demonstrators and reporters, 26 of whom have since filed complaints to the independent police watchdog.
Among the most serious was the launch of several tear gas canisters into a fleeing crowd of protesters at close range outside the CITIC building, prompting scenes that many compared to a disaster movie.
The large crowd tried to escape the gas, but a bottleneck formed as they tried to file through a single open door into the building, with others trying to break down locked doors to let more through.
Tear gas is generally used as a way to disperse crowds, not to fire on trapped crowds, or on people who are already leaving the scene.
Shatin district councilor Chris Mak was present at the scene.
“I saw someone who had been doused all over in pepper spray … they kept saying to me ‘don’t touch me, don’t touch me, my whole body is soaked in pepper spray, and then you will suffer too,” Mak told RFA. “That made me so sad, so I took him to the emergency [first aid] station for help.”
“[Once we got there], a tear gas canister landed right beside my foot, and that guy just pushed me away saying I shouldn’t help him, in case I got caught in it myself,” he said. “I felt awful … why were the police firing tear gas at the first aid stations? I hadn’t charged them or anything, so why did they fire tear gas at me?”
Mak said police also confiscated protesters’ supplies of bottled water, saline and masks, which they planned to use to protect themselves and treat those hit by tear gas and pepper spray.
A Dong, who was a first-aid volunteer on Tim Mei Avenue on June 12, said his help station was also fired on with tear gas, forcing everyone to run to a different street and causing a crush as a huge crowd tried to file into a relatively small space.
“What I saw was that the police didn’t consider the safety of the protesters in doing this,” he said. “The protesters had gathered peacefully in Tim Mei Road, and weren’t charging [police lines].”
“But the police kept firing tear gas into a large crowd of people, non-stop, with the aim of forcing them onto Harcourt Road [further from the legislature],” A Dong said. “Actually, there was a really large number of people there, and we were all worried about a stampede or that somebody would get trampled underfoot.”
In the immediate aftermath of the clashes, 15 people were arrested for”illegal assembly” or charges related to “rioting”, with 17 other arrests made.
Police Commissioner Stephen Lo and Carrie Lam both referred to protesters as “rioters,” which analysts said helped to spark a march of two million protesters through Hong Kong on the following Sunday, calling for a change in official language and the unconditional release of those arrested, as well as total withdrawal of the extradition amendments and Lam’s resignation.
A police officer said the protests were designated a “riot” because protesters charged police lines in several places, meaning that police were then authorized to use tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse them.
“But some people still wouldn’t leave,” the officer said, adding that he thought police were being unfairly vilified over the incident.
Two other front line police officers who declined to be named that they were outside the Legislative Council (LegCo) on the day of the clashes.
They said police had fired tear gas after warning protesters not to try to charge police lines again.
In an apparent bid to soften official language around the clashes, Police Commissioner Lo announced on June 17 that only part of the protest had been designated a riot, and that only five of those arrested had been charged with “rioting.”
But Progressive Lawyers Group convenor Andre Lee said the concept of a designated “riot” is legally meaningless.
“Anything can be designated a riot where a group of people gather together and act to disturb public order,” Lee said. “If it breaches the peace, even if they don’t resort to extreme behavior such as throwing bricks or burning tires, as long as there are clashes, this can constitute a ‘riot’.”
Lee said such wording is legally meaningless and used purely for political effect.
Lam later said that anyone was welcome to lodge a complaint with the Independent Police Complaints Council (IPCC) if they wanted to accuse police of misbehavior, while protesters countered that this wasn’t easy owing to a lack of police identification number displaced on officers’ uniforms.
But Civil Rights Observer group observer member Shum Wai-nam dismissed her suggestion as “ridiculous.”
“In the 10 years since the IPCC was set up, it has been criticized … because it is a case of the police investigating themselves, because only they have investigative powers; the IPCC itself does not, and that definitely isn’t an effective system,” Shum said.
“Its performance has been uninspiring from the start,” he said. “No observer from the IPCC went to monitor the situation at such large-scale demonstrations, which I think is a total dereliction of duty on the part of the IPCC.”
Speaking in LegCo on June 19, Civic Party lawmaker Au Nok-hin called on police to pledge to avoid upper-body injuries in the event of similar clashes.
“Was this continual firing the minimum level of force that you needed to use for the purpose of dispersing the crowd?” Au asked security secretary John Lee.
Lee, responding, apologized for a “lack of explanation” of police actions, but replied that the use of force had been “appropriate and necessary.”
“The police will investigate these complaints in a fair and impartial manner,” Lee said, but stopped short of ordering a public inquiry, another key demand of protesters.
His response prompted shouts for his resignation among pro-democracy lawmakers in the LegCo chamber.
Reported by Tam Siu-yin and Lee Wang-yam for RFA’s Cantonese Service, and by Lu Xi for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.