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Hong Kong watchdog absolves police over protest crackdown, dimming prospects of accountability

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 2020-05-15 Shibani Mahtani
a group of people standing on a sidewalk: Police arrest a pro-democracy demonstrator in the Mong Kok district of Hong Kong on May 10 this year. © AFP/Getty Images Police arrest a pro-democracy demonstrator in the Mong Kok district of Hong Kong on May 10 this year.

HONG KONG —Hong Kong's police complaints council in a report released Friday found no serious wrongdoing in the force's response to last year's mass protests, despite significant evidence to the contrary, instead focusing primarily on the actions of violent demonstrators.

The review, whose scope was limited, dashed hopes among pro-democracy leaders and protesters that the Hong Kong government would hold officers to account for their part in inflaming political tensions throughout months of escalating conflict with demonstrators.

“We have a simple conclusion after reading this report: We must continue to fight,” said James To, a pro-democracy lawmaker. “The report has led us to feel no confidence in our political system whatsoever.”

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The protests were sparked by a now-shelved bill that would have allowed extraditions to mainland China. But they widened to encompass calls for full democracy and an independent inquiry into what protesters alleged was police brutality, and they ultimately became an uprising against Beijing’s efforts to crush the democracy movement.

A lack of reconciliation, experts say, risks exacerbating a volatile political climate as protests heat up again over China’s interference in Hong Kong’s affairs. The report also fuels perceptions that the city’s police have become a tool for the Chinese Communist Party to crack down on dissent, according to academics and political analysts.

“Everywhere you go, the problem isn’t necessarily that the police do things wrong. They do things wrong everywhere,” said Clifford Stott, a policing expert at Britain’s Keele University. “The issue is that they aren’t held to account in Hong Kong.”

Stott was among a panel of international experts invited to work with the complaints council on the report, all of whom quit in December over disagreements about its scope.

The head of the complaints body is appointed by Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, who herself was picked by a small committee loyal to Beijing. The complaints council, unlike police watchdogs elsewhere, does not have the power to summon witnesses and cannot compel police to hand over evidence.

Rather than examining complaints against the force, the report by the Independent Police Complaints Council billed itself as a “thematic” study of key moments that altered the relationship between the police and residents.

These include the first major police operation on June 12, an attack by pro-Beijing triad gangs on pro-democracy protesters on July 21, and a police operation inside an enclosed subway station. The council said it had received 1,755 complaints since unrest began last June.

The report said that police should improve their operational practices, but it did not fault them for using excessive force or responding too slowly when pro-democracy protesters were attacked. It also focused on protesters who “doxed” police officers — a type of harassment involving the dissemination of personal information online.

Later Friday, Lam held a news conference to discuss the report, pointing out the IPCC’s role in supervising the police force. But the bulk of her comments instead addressed the behavior of protesters, and she was standing in front of a backdrop titled “The Truth About Hong Kong,” framed with photos of protesters building barricades and throwing gasoline bombs.

“I believe this is a comprehensive report that is objective and based on fact,” Lam said. “The protesters have no regard for the law and hurt people with political views different to them.”

The findings also address public perceptions of the police, noting that the force needs to rebuild trust.

But the review cautioned the police about their use of tear gas, saying that officers should ensure its use falls within appropriate toxicology limits for Hong Kong’s dense streets. Many residents complained of being gassed in their homes when police were dispersing protests.

A Washington Post investigation last year found that Hong Kong police repeatedly broke their own guidelines during the crackdown and faced no consequences.

Human rights groups have documented extensive abuse of arrested protesters by police. In another instance, an Indonesian journalist lost sight in one eye after police fired a projectile at her. The officer responsible has not been identified by the force nor publicly held to account.

Police say that 22 officers have been reprimanded in connection with their actions in responding to the protests.

a person walking down a street next to a fire: Police stand in front of a fire at the entrance to a building after clashes in the Wan Chai district following an unsanctioned protest march through Hong Kong on Sept. 29, 2019. © Philip Fong/AFP/Getty Images Police stand in front of a fire at the entrance to a building after clashes in the Wan Chai district following an unsanctioned protest march through Hong Kong on Sept. 29, 2019.

Friday’s report came at a sensitive time in Hong Kong. With health concerns over the covid-19 pandemic fading, protests are stirring ahead of the June 4 anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing and the anniversaries of key dates in last year’s upheaval.

At the same time, Beijing is flexing its muscles, asserting recently that it is not bound by a constitutional provision that outlaws the central government’s involvement in Hong Kong’s local affairs.

Diplomats and observers say there have been no real attempts at reconciliation over last year’s unrest. They fear that another explosion of dissent could be more violent and destabilizing for the financial hub.

Lam continues to reject calls for a full commission of inquiry into the upheaval, saying that the complaints council report is enough.

Also on Friday, a 22-year old lifeguard, Sin Ka-ho, who pleaded guilty to rioting charges for participating in the June 12 protest, was jailed for four years.

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