World

Hong Kong in limbo as extradition protests crisis deepens

Hong Kong's legislature suspended meetings Thursday as leaders considered their next steps following a day of violent clashes between police and protesters opposed to a bill that would allow suspects to be tried in mainland Chinese courts.

'We are ready to have a protracted war with the government,' says one protester

Residents argue with police officers at the Tamar Park outside the Central Government Complex on Thursday in Hong Kong. (Anthony Kwan/Getty Images)

Hong Kong's legislature suspended meetings Thursday as leaders considered their next steps following a day of violent clashes between police and protesters opposed to a bill that would allow suspects to be tried in mainland Chinese courts.

Critics say the measure, now on hold, would undermine the city's cherished legal autonomy amid moves by Beijing to tighten its hold over the former British colony.

Several hundred young protesters gathered Thursday on a pedestrian bridge, standing for hours and singing Sing Hallelujah to the Lord, and holding up signs with messages such as, "Don't shoot" and "End the violence."

The debris-strewn area around the city's government headquarters, which was besieged by the demonstrators a day earlier, was blocked off by police.

Footage from Wednesday shows police firing tear gas at Hong Kong protesters:

Police in Hong Kong fired tear gas at demonstrators protesting against an extradition bill that would allow people to be sent to mainland China. 0:53

Police said they arrested 11 people on charges such as assaulting police officers and unlawful assembly. Assistant Police Commissioner Yuen Yuk-kin said 22 officers had been injured. Hospital officials said they were treating 79 people for protest-related injuries as of Thursday morning.

The extradition bill, which will cover Hong Kong residents and foreign and Chinese nationals living or travelling through the city, has sparked concerns it may threaten the rule of law that underpins Hong Kong's international financial status.

"We are ready to have a protracted war with the government," said one protester, Natalie Wong. "I am young, that's why I have to fight for Hong Kong."

Hong Kong's Legislative Council delayed a second reading of the controversial extradition on Thursday after police and protesters clashed outside government buildings as tensions continue over the bill. (Anthony Kwan/Getty Images)

Authorities have shut government offices in the financial district for the rest of the week after some of the worst violence in Hong Kong since Britain handed it back to Chinese rule in 1997.

On Wednesday, police fired rubber bullets, tear gas and pepper spray in a series of skirmishes to clear demonstrators from the legislature, with officials saying 72 people had been admitted to hospital by 10 p.m. local time.

It was the third night of violence since a protest on Sunday drew what organizers said was more than a million people in the biggest street demonstration since the 1997 handover. The Civil Human Rights Front which organized that march, said it was planning another demonstration for Sunday.

Several thousand demonstrators stayed until the early hours of morning near the legislature in the Admiralty district, while thousands more retreated to the Central business district, overlooked by the towers of some of Asia's biggest firms and hotel chains, including HSBC and AIA.

Hong Kong's benchmark stock exchange slid as much as 1.5 per cent on Thursday, extending losses from the previous day.

Most roads around the business district were opening for traffic, but Pacific Place, a prime shopping mall next to the legislature, stayed shut.

Banks, including Standard Chartered, Bank of China and DBS, said they had suspended branch services in the area.

Banks in the Central district emphasized it was "business as usual" but many offered staff the option of working from home.

"As a precaution, we shut two outlets early where the protests were taking place. Our priorities are the safety of our employees and supporting our customers," said HSBC, whose ground-level public space at its headquarters has previously been a focal point for protests.

At least 72 people were sent to hospital following a day of violence Wednesday. (Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters)

Hong Kong's China-backed Chief Executive Carrie Lam condemned the violence late on Wednesday and urged a swift restoration of order.

While acknowledging the controversy, Lam has refused to postpone or withdraw the bill, which she and her officials say is necessary to plug "loopholes" that allow the city to be a haven for criminals wanted on the mainland.

Lam has said the courts would provide human rights safeguards in vetting case-by-case extraditions to mainland China.

Opponents, including leading lawyers and rights groups, say China's justice system is marked by torture and forced confessions, arbitrary detention and poor access to lawyers.

In an impromptu media standup in the legislature, democratic lawmakers strongly criticized Lam's heavy-handed police response.

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      "We are not a haven for criminals, but we have become a haven of violent police. Firing at our children? None of the former chief executives dared to do that," said legislator Fernando Cheung.

      "But 'mother Carrie Lam' did it. What kind of mother is she? I have never seen such an evil-hearted mother."

      In editorials on Thursday, Chinese state media said the protests were "hammering" Hong Kong's reputation.

      "It is lawlessness that will hurt Hong Kong, not the proposed amendments to its fugitive law," said the English-language China Daily.

      Diplomatic pressure

      Amnesty International joined domestic rights groups in condemning Wednesday's use of police force as excessive, while a spokeswoman for the UN Human Rights Office in Geneva said it was following the situation closely.

      "We call on all parties to express their views peacefully and on Hong Kong's authorities to engage in an inclusive and transparent dialogue over the draft legislation," the spokesperson said.

      Diplomatic pressure was also building after leaders such as British Prime Minister Theresa May and U.S. President Donald Trump commented on the protests.

      The European Union said it shared many Hong Kong citizens' concerns over the proposed extradition reforms and urged an in-depth public consultation.

      "This is a sensitive issue, with potentially far-reaching consequences for Hong Kong and its people, for EU and foreign citizens, as well as for business confidence," it said in a statement.

      With files from The Associated Press

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