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Tens of thousands rally in Hong Kong to ask US for political sanctions

Hong Kong protesters ask US for political sanctions (Studio Incendo/Flickr)
October 15, 2019

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

More than 100,000 protesters gathered in downtown Hong Kong’s Central business district on Monday to call on the U.S. Congress to pass human rights legislation linked to the city’s special trading status.

Waving American flags and chanting “Fight for Freedom! Fight for Hong Kong!”, as well as “Disband the police!” the crowd lit up the evening with their cell phone flashlights, while singing “Glory to Hong Kong,” the anthem of the four-month-old protest movement.

Rally organizers said around 130,000 people took part in the event, which saw many participants clad in regular work clothes wear masks in protest at an Oct. 5 ban on face-coverings under colonial-era emergency laws.

The after-work crowd soon spilled out from Chater Garden, blocking major highways around the Court of Final Appeal.

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The peaceful rally came after police said protest violence had reached “life-threatening levels” in clashes over the weekend, during which police reported the stabbing of one officer, as well as an explosion from a small, home-made bomb.

Protesters have escalated their use of makeshift weapons against riot police amid growing public anger in recent week’s over the police force’s repeated failure to protect civilians from pro-China mob attacks, and officers’ tendency to arrest those being targeted rather than their attackers, according to multiple social media reports and live video streams.

Speakers at the rally called on Congress to pass the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2019, which will require Washington to review the city’s rights record when considering whether to continue treating it as a separate entity for trade purposes.

Former 2014 pro-democracy movement leader Joshua Wong called on the U.S. to pass the law, then use it to pursue police officers accused of human rights abuses and torture of detainees during the protests, amid multiple allegations of the torture and sexual abuse of detained protesters.

Sanctions for rights suppression

The bill, if enacted, will also enable the U.S. to freeze the assets of, and refuse visas to, officials deemed responsible for human rights violations in the city.

“Government officials, police officers and election officers who suppress [democratic rights in] Hong Kong should be sanctioned,” Wong, who was recently questioned by officials over his political beliefs after applying to run in district elections, told the crowd.

“I hope that the people of Hong Kong will keep going,” he said. “We are not giving up now. We will all unite and will never be divided.”

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The organizers also called on Washington to ban the export of non-lethal weapons to Hong Kong. Many of the spent tear gas rounds found after the protests have borne the stamps of U.S. factories.

A rally organizer who gave only her surname, Wong, said life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness were also the dream of the people of Hong Kong.

“The United States has always represented the values of the free world,” she said. “The Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act will be the first step in rebuilding order in Hong Kong.”

“We thank the United States for its concern for Hong Kong and for letting us know that we aren’t alone in the this battle, and that history is on our side,” she said.

A protester surnamed Lok said Hong Kong needs to make use of its special status in the international community.

“Hong Kong isn’t very big; it’s quite a small city, but it has quite a high status in the international community,” Lok said. “I hope that the United States can really start to show a bit more concern, and put some pressure on the government.”

‘Crushed bodies and shattered bones’

The rally came a day after Chinese President Xi Jinping ramped up his political rhetoric, in an apparent reference to the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s view that the Hong Kong protests are being orchestrated by “hostile foreign forces.”

“Anyone attempting to split China in any part of the country will end in crushed bodies and shattered bones,” Xi said on Sunday during a visit to Nepal, official media reported.

Protesters are demanding the formal withdrawal of legislation that would allow extradition to mainland China, an amnesty for thousands of people arrested during the movement, the withdrawal of the official term ‘rioting’ to describe the protest movement, an independent inquiry into police violence against protesters, and fully democratic elections to the Legislative Council and for the post of chief executive.

While chief executive Carrie Lam has pledged to formally withdraw the extradition law, she has stopped short of ordering an independent public inquiry, a move many feel would go a long way to defusing growing public anger at her administration, and the ruling Chinese Communist Party in Beijing.

In recent days, protesters have also begun calling for the current Hong Kong police force to be disbanded, particularly after widespread reports of the sexual abuse and torture of detainees at the hands of police have been publicly dismissed by senior officers.

Police have fired thousands of rounds of tear gas and rubber bullets at protesters and arrested more than 2,300 people since June, many of them minors. Two people have been shot with live rounds.

London-based rights group Amnesty International has hit out at the Hong Kong police over the torture and other ill-treatment of anti-extradition protesters in detention, as well as the reckless and indiscriminate use of force.

The group called for a prompt and independent investigation into police actions since protests escalated in early June, after gathering testimonies from more than 20 arrestees, as well as lawyers, healthcare workers and others.

It said “reckless and unlawful tactics” by police seemed to have escalated throughout the course of the anti-extradition movement, which has gripped the city with strikes, sit-ins, mass rallies, human chains and million-strong marches in recent months.

Abuses have included arbitrary arrests and retaliatory violence against arrested persons in custody, some of which has amounted, as well as an excessive amount of force used to quell the protests in violation of international human rights law, the group said in a recent report.