Hong Kong police announced late Tuesday night that 44 out of 49 arrested protesters from clashes with police Sunday would be charged with rioting, an offense punishable by up to 10 years in prison.
The charges come one day after Beijing’s highest government office for Hong Kong affairs held a news conference declaring its support for Hong Kong’s government and police.
At least 170 people have been arrested in connection with protests that have roiled Hong Kong for the last eight weeks over a proposed extradition bill that would allow suspected criminals to be removed to China.
Hong Kong’s government has suspended action on the bill, but what started as peaceful marches have evolved into a desperate movement of weekly — now almost daily — clashes with police as protesters demand full withdrawal of the bill, an independent investigation of alleged police violence, the chief executive’s resignation, release of political prisoners and electoral reform.
The 44 are the first group connected with the extradition bill protests to be charged with rioting. Edward Leung, a pro-independence activist, was jailed for six years after being found guilty of the same offense in clashes with police in 2016.
Leung’s pro-independence slogan, “Reclaim Hong Kong; revolution of our times,” has become a rallying cry for current protesters, who chant it in marches and spray paint it on police stations and government buildings.
Hundreds of protesters surrounded the police station where the arrested protesters were being held after the announcement on Tuesday night, chanting that refrain along with a Cantonese phrase of encouragement, “Add oil!”
Clashes broke out when a small group of riot police came out of the station, shooting pepper spray at the protesters, who threw umbrellas and other objects at them.
The arrested protesters are expected to appear in court Wednesday morning.
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