Arrest of Medical Staff During Hong Kong University Siege Sparks Furor

Medical team workers are shown detained by riot police outside Hong Kong's Polytechnic University, Nov. 17, 2019.
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A handful of protesters remained besieged in Hong Kong's Polytechnic University (Poly U) ahead of district elections on Sunday amid concerns for their health, as an international medical journal hit out in an opinion article at the detention of doctors, paramedics, and first-aid personnel by riot police during the week-long siege.

In the U.K.-based medical journal The Lancet, independent medical practitioner Darren Mann--a member of a medical team providing emergency care to injured protesters engaged in violent confrontation with police at Poly U on the night of Nov. 17--hit out at the arrest of healthcare personnel by riot police.

"The actions of the Hong Kong Police Force have fallen far below accepted international norms for the handling of volunteer emergency medical providers," Mann wrote in an account for the journal.

"All emergency medical workers were wearing high-visibility vests with prominent Red Cross insignia, helmets with Red Cross markings, gas masks, and air-tight eye protection (the latter two measures against the large amounts of tear gas customarily encountered in these protests)," he wrote.

"We subsequently learned that a group following us (comprising doctors, nurses and paramedics) had been arrested at the police cordon line after leaving the campus," he said.

Mann cited a photo circulated online as showing at least 16 individuals sitting on the ground with their hands bound behind their backs with cable ties.

"They are wearing high-visibility vests with descriptions of Doctor, Nurse, and EMT (emergency medical technician)," Mann said. "These people were all arrested for taking part in a riot."

He added: "Police subsequently assaulted the campus at about 0530 h. At least one doctor who was actively providing medical care to a casualty was arrested."

Mann described two emergency interventions by both the Red Cross and Medicins Sans Frontieres (MSF) who responded to what they saw as a humanitarian crisis during the course of the siege, one of which was extended due to the numbers of people requiring care.

'Almost unheard of'

Police have claimed that they arrested the medical aid workers after receiving a tip-off that protesters were disguising themselves as medics to leave the besieged campus without being arrested.

"This is doubtful since all doctors were in possession of their Medical Council of Hong Kong registration details and identity cards," Mann wrote. "At least five doctors are known to have been arrested and detained by police for more than 24 hours."

The Hong Kong Public Doctors' Association also condemned the arrests of medical personnel, as well as police failure to allow emergency aid workers to come and go freely during the siege.

"We call on police to respect the principle of humanitarian assistance," the group said in a Nov. 19 statement. "Even if someone is suspected of having violated the law, they should still have the opportunity to receive proper treatment."

Association chairwoman Arisina Ma backed up Mann's account, saying that all medical personnel had their identification documents on them on the day of their arrest.

"They had proof that they were doctors and nurses, or paramedics," Ma said. "They also had their ID cards."

She said at least six medical personnel were arrested, and have subsequently been released on bail. Nobody has been charged.

"The arrest of these personnel is almost unheard of in civilised countries and is incompatible with the compact of humanitarianism," Mann concluded.

"Furthermore, the chilling effect can only serve to deter would-be volunteers from offering their services in the much-needed medical care of injured people in this ongoing uncivil war," he said.

Some 300 people were sent to different hospitals to receive treatment during the siege of Poly U, for injuries related to water cannon blast, tear gas, and rubber bullets, the Hospital Authority said at the time.

Government plays down health fears

Meanwhile, Hong Kong government officials sought to play down health fears surrounding the possible effects on the population of inhaling and absorbing residue from more than 10,000 canisters of tear gas fired by riot police since pro-democracy and anti-extradition protests escalated in early June.

Secretary for Food and Health Sophia Chan said exposure to tear gas can cause a stinging and burning sensation to eyes and other mucous membranes, tearing, salivation, runny nose, tight chest, headache, nausea, a burning sensation on the skin, and rashes.

"These symptoms will usually disappear within a short time after exposure to tear gas," Chan said in a statement on the government's website.

But she cited government advice as saying that disposable cleaning products should be used to remove residue, and that residue "should not be stirred up." The cleaning products should then be sealed before being thrown out.

Chan said concerns have been expressed about food at the Yaumatei Fruit Market, close to the scene of several days of intense clashes between protesters and riot police in the past week.

"For the sake of prudence, food suspected to be contaminated or showing abnormality should not be consumed," she said, although she suggested that contaminants could be "reduced" by washing.

Earlier this month, a reporter for online news outlet Stand News was diagnosed with chloracne, raising public health concerns about the effect on the wider population.

Chan Yu-hong wrote in a Facebook post that he had been diagnosed with the rare condition, which is linked to exposure to the dioxins in tear gas.

Parents petition government

A petition of parents called on the government to limit the use of tear gas, a chemical weapon under international military classification, in public areas frequented by children.

It called on police to make public the provenance and chemical composition of the tear gas they use, to enable medical practitioners to formulate treatment plans accordingly.

A doctor at a Hong Kong hospital who gave only his surname Wong said dioxins, a likely byproduct of tear gas, are harmful to human health, and called on police to release more information.

"The incidence [of dioxin poisoning] depends on the amount of exposure," Wong said. "If the protests aren't resolved, more and more people could start having problems next year."

Reported by Lau Siu-fung and Tam Siu-yin for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Gao Feng for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.


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