Hong Kong students resist violent assault peacefully

By staff writers
October 3, 2014

Students protesting for democracy in Hong Kong raised their hands and refused to fight when attacked by pro-China activists today (3 October 2014).

"Im angry, but I'm peaceful" said one student when questioned by a news journalist as his comrades tried to stop a demonstrator's tent from being destroyed in a central area of the Special Administrative District.

Meanwhile, the NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW) said that the Hong Kong authorities should avoid excessive force as pro-democracy protests continue.

Officials should immediately free anyone still detained for peacefully participating in demonstrations between 27 and 29 September 2014, HRW declared.

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, it emphasised.

“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 of the NGO.

“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 says it is concerned 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. One clip showed police tapping a protester on the shoulder, then sending pepper spray into his eyes at close range. Another showed police using pepper spray on a radio journalist who had displayed a journalist ID.

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.

Large numbers of protesters remain in major thoroughfares. On the morning of 29 September, the Hong Kong government announced it would withdraw riot police and urged the protesters to leave.

While some protester action may warrant the use of action by police, international human rights standards limit the use of force to situations in which it is strictly necessary, says Human Rights Watch.

The United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms provide that law enforcement officials may only use force if other means remain ineffective or have no promise of achieving the intended result. When using force, law enforcement officials should exercise restraint and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offence and to the legitimate objective to be achieved. Hong Kong authorities should allow an independent review of police conduct in the demonstrations, and use maximum restraint in response to protests.

Police have arrested dozens of protesters, including 17-year-old student protest leader Joshua Wong, on suspicion of taking part in an “illegal assembly” and “forcible entry into government buildings,” among other charges. Police denied bail to Wong and held him for 40 hours until a judge ordered him released, stating that Wong was held for an “unreasonably long” time and that the extended detention was “unlawful.”

While Wong was being held, police searched his home and took away his computer. Although most protesters have been released, the detentions appear designed to discourage involvement in the protests. Police similarly detained and released protesters after demonstrations in June and July.

The pro-democracy protests between 26 and 28 September did not conform to Hong Kong’s Public Order Ordinance, which requires organisers to notify police of demonstrations involving more than 30 people seven days in advance, and for organisers to get a 'notice of no objection' from the government before proceeding. Yet this standard creates tension with international law.

The United Nations Human Rights Committee, an international treaty body that monitors compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), has repeatedly expressed concerns that the ordinance “may facilitate excessive restriction” to the right to freedom of assembly.

“The protests in Hong Kong should show authorities that a harsh, uncompromising attitude on the issue of democracy provokes a serious backlash,” HRW's Richardson said. “The best way to restore order and popular confidence is to tolerate peaceful protest, and to take meaningful steps towards genuine democracy, as promised."

* Human Rights Watch: http://www.hrw.org

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