Hong Kong Official Defends Police’s Use of Force Against Protesters

HONG KONG — Hong Kong’s top security official on Wednesday defended the police’s hotly criticized use of tear gas and pepper spray against protesters last week, saying that officers had been in a “life-threatening situation.”

The protest on June 12 was one of three major demonstrations in recent days against a bill that would allow extraditions to mainland China. On that day, tens of thousands of mostly young people blocked a highway near Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, preventing lawmakers from entering the building to debate the bill, which has since been suspended.

After a small number of protesters stormed barricades outside the complex, hurling bricks and other objects at the police, officers fired tear gas, rubber bullets and pepper spray into what had been a mostly peaceful crowd, clearing the area of demonstrators.

Video has since circulated of the police using what appeared to be excessive force against unarmed protesters, including a young woman who was beaten while curled up on the ground.

On Wednesday, Hong Kong’s security secretary, John Lee Ka-chiu, speaking at the Legislative Council’s first meeting since the protests last week, said the police had adopted a “tolerant” attitude on June 12 until protesters “violently” attacked them. “In a life-threatening situation, the police used necessary force,” he said.

Mr. Lee immediately faced a barrage of criticism from the pro-democracy lawmakers who hold a minority of the Legislative Council’s seats. One, Charles Peter Mok Nai-kwong, said Mr. Lee had tried to justify violent police behavior.

ImageCarrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, before apologizing on Tuesday for her handling of the contentious extradition bill.
CreditLam Yik Fei for The New York Times

“Everything you have said today is polarizing the people,” he said. “You are the one that’s heating things up right now.” Some pro-democracy legislators, wearing black in solidarity with the protesters, chanted for Mr. Lee’s resignation.

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Junius Ho, a lawmaker in the pro-Beijing majority bloc, supported the police’s actions and said the protesters’ demands should be resisted, including the dropping of all charges against demonstrators. “They want blood, they want heads to roll,” Mr. Ho said. “We cannot back down!”

Dozens of people were injured during the June 12 protest, and 32 people were arrested, five of them on charges of rioting, which can carry substantial prison sentences. On Wednesday, the authorities said they had dropped charges against eight people who had been arrested for loitering.

The police’s use of force on June 12 became a central issue in the latest major protest against the extradition bill, on Sunday, which drew as many as two million people into the city’s streets, according to protest organizers. Many of the signs and chants at that march condemned the police for attacking Hong Kongers.

Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, announced the extradition bill’s indefinite suspension on Saturday, and on Tuesday she offered her second apology for her handling of the matter. But she has refused demands that the bill be fully withdrawn, not just suspended.

Many in the city believe that if the bill became law, anyone in Hong Kong, including dissidents, would be at risk of being detained, sent to mainland China and subjected to its opaque judicial system, which is controlled by the ruling Communist Party. Civil liberties in Hong Kong, a semiautonomous former British colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997, have been eroding in recent years.

Mrs. Lam’s apologies and her suspension of the bill have failed to appease protesters, who have called for her resignation and demanded that all charges against demonstrators be dropped unconditionally. “Retract the rioting charges” has become a popular chant among the young protesters who have gathered in black T-shirts around the Legislative Council complex in recent days.

CreditLam Yik Fei for The New York Times

At the Wednesday meeting, Mr. Lee offered his own apology for the recent unrest, saying he bore partial responsibility for it as the security secretary. “So just like the chief executive, I offer my apology for causing social disputes and anxiety,” he said.

Mr. Lee acknowledged that most of the protesters on June 12 had behaved peacefully. His comments came two days after Police Commissioner Stephen Lo said that only the demonstrators who attacked the police on that day would face rioting charges.

“Police all along respected the freedom of expression, speech and assembly,” Mr. Lo said, adding that it was their duty to “assist the public in conducting public order events in a peaceful and rational matter, as well as ensuring public safety and public order.”

On Tuesday, the police and a watchdog that monitors complaints against them both said they would analyze the actions taken by the force on June 12.

Man-kei Tam, the director of Amnesty International’s chapter in Hong Kong, who said the police had used excessive force, said it was unclear whether those inquiries would extend to the chain of command, as opposed to the actions of individual officers. “If not, the investigation will not be a thorough one,” he said.

He added that the watchdog that monitors police complaints did not have the authority to conduct its own investigations or collect evidence.

Gary Fong, an expert on policing at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said that the Hong Kong public had held the police in high regard for decades, until the so-called Umbrella Movement protests of 2014, during which officers initially used tear gas against young demonstrators. That shook the public’s confidence, but many continued to believe that there were good elements within the force, he said.

But the use of “excessive” and “unnecessary” force on June 12 changed that, Mr. Fong said. “Now they believe every cop is a bad cop,” he said.

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