Hong Kong’s police failed in their duty to protect hundreds of peaceful pro-democracy protesters from attacks by counter demonstrators on Friday evening, Amnesty International said Friday. Women and girls were among those targeted as counter-demonstrators clashed with pro-democracy protesters in the Mongkok and Causeway Bay areas of Hong Kong Friday evening. The human rights organization says that incidents of sexual assault, harassment and intimidation have been widespread during the clash.
“The police inaction tonight is shameful. The authorities have failed in their duty to protect peaceful protesters who came under attack. There has been a heavy police presence during the past week, but their failure tonight risks fuelling an increasingly volatile situation.” said Mabel Au, Director of Amnesty International Hong Kong.
Amnesty has first-hand witness accounts of women being physically attacked and threatened, while police stood by and did nothing. One woman at the demonstration in Mongkok told Amnesty International how a man grabbed her breasts while she was standing with other protesters at around four o’clock in the afternoon. She also witnessed the same man assault two other women by touching their groins.
Several police officers witnessed this but failed to take any action against the man, according to the woman. Fellow protesters then intervened to prevent the man attacking any more women.
Police reinforcements appeared only hours after the atmosphere became violent, but the police still struggled to maintain control. It is unclear whether the police simply underestimated the risk posed by counter-demonstrators, or whether they decided not to intervene.
The authorities have an obligation to protect peaceful protesters from violent attacks, Amnesty says, and demonstrators must be allowed to exercise their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.Under international standards, a peaceful assembly does not become illegal because some counter-demonstrators act in an unruly or even violent way.
Since the late afternoon, the situation has become increasingly tense, and police seemed to have had difficulty maintaining control. Observers reported that police forces were not sufficient for several hours, despite widespread reports of an urgently deteriorating situation.
The police have made some arrests, but this seems to have made no affect on the counter-demonstrators.
Counter demonstrators came out on Friday and clashed with pro-democracy protesters, who have been occupying the streets for a week.
On August 31st 2014, the Chinese government rejected open nominations for Hong Kong’s chief executive despite treaty commitments to “universal suffrage” and “a high degree of autonomy” for the territory. In reaction, university and later secondary school students boycotted classes for a week, starting on September 22nd.
As the boycott was ending on the evening of September 26th, a group of students entered Civic Square, in front of the government headquarters, without permission. The square recently was closed to the public except by permit. Police surrounded the students and arrested them, using pepper spray on protesters who blocked police from entering the square.
In response to police treatment of the students, far larger numbers of people – about 50,000 – went to the area around Civic Square on September 27th. Organizers of the pro-democracy movement “Occupy Central” then announced that they were officially launching their demonstrations and joined the protests. On September 28th, Hong Kong police unilaterally declared the protest illegal. They also cordoned off the government headquarters grounds, barred protesters from entering the area, and declared that anyone found inside would be arrested.
This decision appeared to prompt thousands more protesters to gather in the Admiralty and Wanchai areas near government headquarters, demanding that police re-open the area. The protesters broke through police blockades and walked out onto the major thoroughfares between the two groups. Protests then spread to multiple locations, blocking roads in the Admiralty, Wanchai, Central, and Mongkok areas.
Police used pepper spray again and tear gas and beat protesters with police batons on September 28th. In a news conference, the Hong Kong police chief said the tear gas and pepper spray were used to “maintain safe distance” between protesters and police and that protesters had “charged the police cordon lines in a violent manner.” He said that if protesters did not disperse there would be injuries to both police officers and demonstrators. Prior to firing tear gas and pepper spray, police raised warning flags.
In recent years people in Hong Kong have expressed not only concerns about equal rights to vote and to run as candidates, but also about their ability to shape the public policies that directly affect their lives. Some believe Hong Kong’s leadership is increasingly adopting policies that reflect China’s interests while ignoring the opinions, needs, and rights of ordinary Hong Kong people. While pro-democracy political figures who have been critical of Chinese government policies have been popular with the public, they have limited ability to shape policies because the political system constrains their role in the government.
Police use of riot gear, pepper spray, tear gas, and police batons and the detention of peaceful protesters in recent days raise serious concerns about how the Hong Kong and Chinese governments will react to ongoing demonstrations in the territory, Human Rights Watch said earlier this week.
“Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying has to show the kind of tolerance for peaceful protest for which Hong Kong is known, not the intolerance that we see for it in the mainland,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. “Hong Kong is known for respecting the rule of law and individual freedoms, and those rights cannot be sacrificed at times of political uncertainty.”
Human Rights Watch expressed concern about police use of force given that the protesters appeared to pose no clear or imminent threat to public safety or property, nor have there been any reported instances of protesters threatening police. Some protesters shook police barriers and threw empty plastic bottles, but the protest otherwise remained entirely peaceful. Some video footage showed disturbing uses of pepper spray.
It is also unclear whether police took all the steps necessary before using force, or whether they gave protesters adequate warning or time to disperse before releasing pepper spray or tear gas. Some protesters told Human Rights Watch that they did not see or hear any warning before being hit with tear gas or pepper spray. Others said they saw the warning flags, but that the flags appeared only seconds before the police took action. In these instances, protesters panicked and moved backward. Protesters said they feared a stampede in the area crowded with other protesters. About three dozen protesters and police officers have suffered minor injuries.
In the past, Hong Kong police have handled far larger protests without using force. The escalation of force in response to peaceful protests brings into question Hong Kong police’s independence, as well as how the Hong Kong and Chinese governments will react to future protests.
The 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, which spells out the terms for transfer of Hong Kong from British to Chinese control stipulates that Hong Kong shall have “a high degree of autonomy” in matters other than national defense and foreign policy, while the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s functional constitution, states that universal suffrage is the “ultimate aim” for the selection of the chief executive, the top leader, as well as members of the Legislative Council.