Hong Kong police on Tuesday fired pepper spray at protesters gathered in the city's Central business district to mark the anniversary of a million-strong peaceful march last year to oppose government plans to allow extradition to mainland China.
Several hundred protesters, many of them clad in regular office clothing, occupied roads and gathered in high-end shopping malls on Tuesday evening to mark the anniversary of the protest movement, which demanded the withdrawal of the extradition bill that would have allowed the rendition of alleged criminal suspects to face trial in mainland China.
But the protest was met with months of stalling and intransigence from the city's chief executive, Carrie Lam, who refused to respond directly to protesters' demands, saying only that the bill was "dead."
By the time Lam formally took the bill off the list of proposed laws in the city's Legislative Council in October 2019, the anti-extradition protesters were also demanding fully democratic elections, an end to the government's characterization of them as "rioters," an amnesty for the thousands of people arrested, and a full public inquiry into police violence towards peaceful protesters.
At least 25 people were arrested in Central on Tuesday evening after protests blocked traffic in the district. Fully armed riot police were bused to the scene, and pursued some people in the crowd, often apparently at random, video footage posted to social media showed.
Protesters moved away when approached, however, only to gather on a different street.
Police raised a blue warning flag claiming that the protest was "illegal," in spite of the right to assemble and protest being enshrined in Article 27 of Hong Kong's mini-constitution, the Basic Law.
Police said the gatherings were in breach of current coronavirus restrictions banning public gatherings of more than eight people.
As protesters once more faced off with police, the authorities said four people being prosecuted over the storming of the LegCo on July 1, 2019 are now being charged with the more serious crime of "rioting," which carries a potential jail term of 10 years.
Police are charging actor Gregory Wong, protest organizer Ventus Lau, former Hong Kong University student leader Althea Suen, and Brian Leung, a protester who removed his mask while reading out a statement after protesters had occupied the LegCo chamber with the offense.
"Actually the initial charges were that we were in a vicinity of the LegCo complex, which weren't very serious, so it did occur to us that they might try to bring more serious charges," Lau told reporters.
"But why did they pick today? Because this day last year, June 9, is when one million people marched; it's the anniversary of the start of the entire protest movement," he said.
"I was pretty shocked by that."
Brian Leung, who is currently studying in the United States, reacted to the news via his Twitter account.
"Am I now a fugitive? An exile? A political refugee? I don't know," Leung wrote.
'She started this chaos'
Carrie Lam said on Tuesday that the city "cannot afford" any more chaos caused by the protests, echoing the ruling Chinese Communist Party's claims that a draconian sedition and subversion law it plans to impose on Hong Kong will end "chaos" in the city following a year of mass protests.
Protesters took to Twitter to respond to Lam's statement.
"She started this chaos by attacking Hong Kong’s enshrined freedoms," wrote user @Rover829, while @kllialan commented: "I also can’t afford the chaos made by the government anymore."
"She means the chaos she created?" user @Star20861 wrote, while @manucanuck added: "Tell her to tell the [Chinese Communist Party] to stop interfering in Hong Kong’s business."
Many former front-line protesters, who once fought back with bricks, Molotov cocktails, and batons from behind barricades of street barriers and umbrellas against oncoming riot police, have fled overseas to escape charges of "rioting."
A former front-line protester who gave only a nickname, Mike, said he left for Taiwan after being on the front line during several weeks of protests.
"After the storming of LegCo, the police were going round checking everyone's IDs," Mike told RFA from his Taiwan accommodation. "They were using documents and so on to try to find anyone who had been [a part of the occupation of LegCo]."
"The hardest thing about it isn't the fact that we got shot at, or beat up by police; it's the fact that I still dream about my comrades getting beaten up by police and tortured by them right in front of my eyes, but I am powerless to help them," Mike said.
Around one third of adults in Hong Kong have reported symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) since the protest movement escalated last June, according to a mental health survey published in The Lancet last year, which said the incidence of psychiatric problems was similar to those usually associated with war zones or terrorist attacks.
Rights groups warned in November that Hong Kong was in a state of humanitarian crisis after police fired more than 16,000 rounds of tear gas in recent months, with around 1,000 of those fired into the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) campus during a single day in November.
A January opinion poll by Reuters found that most of Hong Kong's residents supported the five demands of the protest movement, with more than one third of respondents saying they had attended a protest.
Only 30 percent said they were opposed, compared with 59 percent of those polled who supported the movement.
Call for world action
The New York-based group Human Rights Watch (HRW) called on governments around the world to take action to safeguard the people of Hong Kong as China prepares to allow its feared state security police to operate in the city under a draconian new law banning "actions or activities" deemed seditious or subversive.
“For the past year Hong Kong people have made clear their peaceful demands for freedom and autonomy,” HRW China director Sophie Richardson said in a statement on Tuesday. "But the authorities in Beijing and Hong Kong choose to respond with ever-greater repression and violence."
HRW said that while the vast majority of protesters acted peacefully, Hong Kong police had frequently used "excessive force" against them, while pro-China thugs also repeatedly attacked protesters and pro-democracy lawmakers.
It said the police have arrest around 8,000 demonstrators June 2019, yet no police officers have been held to account, while the incoming national security law poses a fresh threat to the city's promised freedoms.
"[The national security] legislation is likely to have wide-ranging impact on Hong Kong, making it difficult for people to exercise the many freedoms they have long experienced. Instead, exercising these freedoms could be treated as subversion," HRW said.
The group said governments should sanction senior Beijing and Hong Kong officials responsible for recent human rights violations in Hong Kong and future abuses under the national security legislation, subjecting them to travel bans and asset freezes.
"The global failure to respond to China’s aggressive rights abuses ... have only emboldened the Chinese government," Richardson said.
"Foreign governments catalyzed by this grave threat to freedoms in Hong Kong should act swiftly to press Beijing over its human rights violations."
Reported by Lau Siu-fung for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Mai Hsiao-tien, Tseng Yat-yiu and Lu Xi for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.