More than a dozen anti-extradition protesters who broke into Hong Kong's Legislative Council (LegCo) following a mass peaceful demonstration on July 1 have since fled to Taiwan, RFA has learned.
The young protesters, many of whom are students, could face jail terms of at least five years if they are convicted of "rioting" in a Hong Kong court, based on the treatment of leaders of the 2014 Occupy Central pro-democracy movement, their lawyers said.
But they also face formidable difficulties in applying for formal political asylum, as they are unable to prove that they were part of the storming of LegCo, because they were wearing masks to avoid detection at the time.
Now, they have been offered temporary accommodation by Taiwanese NGOs, but there is no indication that they will able to stay in the longer term.
A Taiwanese lawyer who declined to be named said the fact that the protesters had left Hong Kong before police caught up with them made any asylum request even harder to back up with evidence.
Hundreds of anti-extradition protesters broke into the legislative building on July 1 after huge crowds took to the streets to protest plans to allow extradition to mainland China, smashing through the reinforced glass with metal objects ripped from the nearby streets over several hours.
Clad in yellow construction helmets, face masks and using swimming floats strapped to their arms as shields, the protesters surged into the building after a long face-off with police in full riot gear, who appeared at first to offer no resistance.
Once inside, they briefly occupied the LegCo chamber, hanging a colonial era Hong Kong flag and daubing insults to the administration of chief executive Carrie Lam and the city's police force alongside slogans protesting planned amendments to the Fugutive Offenders Ordinance that would allow alleged criminal suspects to be sent to mainland China to face trial.
Hong Kong's Apple Daily said some of the protesters, who are scattered across Taiwan, had simply gone there to avoid trouble, using their own money and acting as tourists, while others were contemplating applying to study there instead of applying for asylum.
Leung Man-to, a political science professor from Hong Kong who is currently at Taiwan National Cheng Kung University, said there had been a steady trickle of Hong Kong residents who had played a fairly up-front role in the protests into Taiwan in recent weeks.
"There are various groups from different backgrounds and factions coming over here," Leung said. "They've usually been more or less at the forefront [of the movement] and they now fear a delayed crackdown."
"They are just here in Taiwan as tourists, for a month or so, for the time being, to wait and see what happens," he said. "They want to come here to distance themselves from it for a while."
Difficult path to residency
Leung said it is pretty hard for Hong Kong residents to achieve long-term residency in Taiwan, with the government preferring instead to extend their tourist visas, and applications for longer term status are made on a case-by-case basis.
"Basically I think they want people to use it as a stepping stone, and eventually leave ... which means that they can't work ... or live [here]," Leung said. "There is no system for dealing with long-term applications."
Gary Cheung, who is currently in his first year of a bachelor's degree at National Taiwan University of Arts, said he was among more than 80 people arrested and charged with "obstructing public servants in the course of their duty" during the final clearance of Occupy Central protesters from Hong Kong's Mong Kok district.
While Cheung -- who has since formed a Taiwan-based group of Hong Kong students opposing the extradition amendments -- wasn't eventually prosecuted, he was among a large number of young people to head for the democratic island of Taiwan in the wake of the 2014 movement.
"Hong Kong people, including students of various kinds, have been coming to Taiwan for a while," Cheung told RFA. "They may have been identified [by police], maybe they've been arrested, or maybe they haven't yet, but they are all very worried."
"Things are so repressive right now; they would definitely have to pay a political price if they have been recognized," he said.
He said that, five years on, the police appear to be taking a far more hard-line attitude to anti-extradition protesters than they did with those arrested during the Occupy, or Umbrella, movement.
He said that anyone leaving Hong Kong must have done so in a clear-headed manner, knowing full well the manner of threat they faced if they stayed in the city.
"I would say the best thing would be to allow those seeking asylum to stay awhile, and to discuss some kind of long-term solution that is acceptable to everyone," Cheung said.
Hong Kong Democratic Party lawmaker James To said the police are unlikely to be able to keep up with the sheer number of protesters now taking to the streets, however.
"We are looking at major clashes a couple of times a week, so I don't think it's going to be easy to start looking back at what happened on July 1," To said. "Most of [the evidence] is in the form of digital images, and we've had four or five huge protests since then."
"How can they comb through so much footage at the same time as preparing for big protests at the weekends? They can't have enough people to do that," he said.
EU calls for withdrawal of bill
The European Parliament on Wednesday called on the Hong Kong government to announce the formal withdrawal of amendments to the Fugitive Offenders' Ordinance and the Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Legislation (Amendment) Bill 2019 governing the freezing of assets.
In line with demands made at recent protests in Hong Kong, it also called for an amnesty for all protesters and for a full, independent and public inquiry into the use of force against unarmed protesters.
"The EU shares many of the concerns raised by citizens of Hong Kong regarding the proposed extradition reforms and has conveyed them to the [Hong Kong] government," the Parliament said in a resolution.
"The bill has far-reaching consequences for Hong Kong and its people, for the EU and for foreign citizens, as well as for business confidence in Hong Kong," it said.
It also expressed "great concern at the steady deterioration of civil rights, political rights and press freedom [and] the unprecedented pressure on journalists and their increasing self-censorship."
It also called on the government to implement direct elections for the position of Chief Executive and to LegCo, including the right to elect candidates and to stand for election in the selection process for all leadership positions.
Writing in the Ming Pao on Thursday, Chinese University of Hong Kong journalism professor Francis Lee also called for an independent inquiry.
"Now that the above-mentioned radicalization process has taken shape, condemning it won't change the direction of its development," Lee said, noting polls that indicate widespread public support in Hong Kong for increasingly radical forms of political protest.
"The only ones who can solve the crisis are the government," Lee wrote. "The establishment of an independent investigation committee, although not the same thing as resolving the issue, is the best way to ease tensions at the current time."
"If we can’t even do this, it’s no wonder that some people feel that the government simply wants to escalate the conflict until 'something happens'. In the current climate of distrust, if something really serious happens, those who support the movement will only see the government as the instigator."
Reported by Hwang Chun-mei for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Ho Shan for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.