HONG KONG: Police say dozens of Hong Kong protesters detained during recent clashes will be charged with rioting — an offence that carries a jail term of up to ten years — as the finance hub’s embattled pro-Beijing leaders crack down on weeks of demonstrations.
Hong Kong has been hit by seven weeks of mass protest rallies — some of which have ended in violence — triggered by a controversial bill which would have allowed extraditions to mainland China.
They have evolved into calls for wider democratic reforms and a halt to sliding freedoms in the most significant challenge to Beijing’s rule since the city’s 1997 handover.
Recent weeks have seen a dramatic surge in the level of violence used by both protesters and police who have repeatedly fired rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse projectile-throwing crowds.
In the latest clashes on Sunday, protesters fought running battles with riot officers in a well-heeled residential suburb on the main island with 49 arrests made.
A senior police source said Tuesday that 44 of those arrested were being charged with rioting and are expected to appear in court on Wednesday morning.
“We are in the process of charging them,” the source told AFP. “A formal press statement will be issued later.”
Rioting is one of the most serious public order offences on Hong Kong’s statute books and carries a sentence of up to a decade in jail.
Edward Leung, a prominent activist, was jailed for six years last year after he was found guilty of rioting in clashes with police in 2016.
– ‘Irresponsible remarks’ –
The move to charge the 44 protesters comes a day after Beijing publicly threw its weight behind Hong Kong’s unelected leader Carrie Lam and the police, saying violent protesters must be swiftly punished.
“No civilised society or rule of law society will tolerate rampant violence,” Yang Guang, spokesman for the cabinet-level Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, told reporters in a highly unusual public press conference.
Yang blamed the violence on a “few radicals” and said it “bumped into the bottom line” of the “one country, two systems” principle that governs the financial hub.
He also accused Western politicians of making “irresponsible remarks” to “mess up Hong Kong” and contain China’s development.
Beijing has issued increasingly shrill condemnations of the protests, but has left it to the city’s government to deal with the situation.
Lam has shown no sign of backing down beyond agreeing to suspend the extradition bill and has made few public appearances.
Protesters have vowed to keep their campaign going until their core demands are met.
They include the resignation of Lam, an independent inquiry into police tactics, an amnesty for those arrested, a permanent withdrawal of the bill and the right to elect their leaders.
On Monday, activists held up trains on the city’s subway system during the morning rush hour, leading to lengthy delays and long queues for buses.