In March 2019, Hong Kong’s government introduced plans for changes to a legislation that would enable criminal suspects to be extradited to mainland China. However, the bill received widespread criticism from many sectors of society concerned that it could undermine Hong Kong’s legal freedoms and might be used to intimidate or silence dissidents.
Since early June, the people of Hong Kong have been repeatedly protesting against the proposed extradition bill. Over a million people have flooded the main streets on June 9, June 16 and August 18. Countless protests of smaller scale have also taken place in other parts of Hong Kong. The Hong Kong police used tear gas and pepper spray, and in some instances, guns firing bean bags and rubber bullets to disperse protesters including those remaining peaceful.
On June 15, the Hong Kong government announced it would indefinitely suspend the bill. Then, on September 3, 2019, Hong Kong chief executive Carries Lam announced that the controversial extradition bill would be formally withdrawn. However, Lam’s announcement came in too little and too late. Since April the protesters demands have broadened to include an independent investigation into the police use of force, withdraw the label of “riot” for the anti-extradition bill protests, release any arrested anti-extradition bill protesters and do not pursue any charges on them, and universal suffrage for all Legislative Council members and the Chief Executive. The police inaction in face of violent counter-protesters, for instance unidentified individuals and alleged members of organized crime groups attacked by-standers and protesters indiscriminately in Yuen Long, in the New Territories area of Hong Kong on July 21, further intensified the dissatisfaction of protesters.
The Hong Kong police have used the violent acts of a small group as a pretext to classify the largely peaceful protest as an unlawful assembly and specifically a “riot”. In the past three months, Amnesty International has verified numerous incidents involving the dangerous use of rubber bullets, officers beating protesters who did not resist, aggressive tactics used by police to obstruct journalists on site, and the misuse of tear gas and pepper spray. By early August, police said they have fired 1,800 rounds of tear gas, 300 rubber bullets and 170 sponge grenades. More than 600 people have been arrested, while 44 people have been charged with “rioting”, which carries a maximum prison sentence of 10 years.
On August 31, 2019, multiple clashes between police and protesters took place, including one incident where police stormed the platform of Prince Edward metro station and beat people on a train. According to Man-Kei Tam, Director of Amnesty International Hong Kong, “video footage proves that police stormed into the train carriage and used batons to repeatedly beat people posing no threat whatsoever. Pepper spray was used in a carriage where people had no means to retreat, while medics were barred from entering the station.”
While law enforcement officials must be able to carry out their duty to protect the public, violence directed at police does not give officers a green light to operate outside of international policing standards. The Hong Kong government’s actions against the protesters were violations of their human rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly and the right to a fair trial.
Amnesty International has been working to urge the Hong Kong police to adopt a less confrontational approach to future demonstrations and facilitate the right to peaceful protest. While the formal withdrawal of the extradition bill, at long last, is welcome, the withdrawal cannot change the fact that the Hong Kong authorities have chosen to suppress protests in a grossly unlawful way that has seriously damaged the people’s trust and sense of legitimacy of the government. A thorough and independent investigation into unnecessary and excessive use of force by police at protests in now needed more than ever. Amnesty continues to call on all governments to suspend transfers of less lethal ‘crowd control’ equipment to Hong Kong until a full investigation is carried out and adequate safeguards are put in place.
AIUSA has been lobbying US government officials and members of Congress to ensure that export controls of crowd control equipment to Hong Kong from the US are reviewed to prevent their use in human rights abuses, which has been influential in several recent developments. The chairs and ranking members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the Senate Banking Committee led a bipartisan group of 10 senators in sending a letter to Secretary of Commerce Ross and Secretary of State Pompeo calling on them to review the adequacy of US export controls with respect to Hong Kong. The House of Representatives has also introduced HR4270, the PROTECT Hong Kong Act, following our calls to ban US crowd control exports.
Why Hong Kong’s Extradition Bill was the final straw
The now-scrapped Extradition Bill is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Hong Kongers’ grievances against their government.
Without a proper investigation into the conduct of police, Hong Kong risks becoming mired in a vicious cycle of protest and violence.