The Hong Kong Police Force defended the use of non-lethal weapons against extradition bill protesters in Sheung Wan on Sunday night, saying it was “lawful and proportionate”, while insisting that they had taken action against those who attacked protesters and journalists in Yuen Long on the same night, although it was not timely enough.
Critics have slammed the police for unequal treatment of the two incidents, saying officers did not hesitate to use force against protesters when they refused to disperse but took their time when protesters were under attack from gangsters.
The Sheung Wan clashes took place after protesters stormed Beijing’s Liaison Office to express their anger over the government’s handling of the issues surrounding the now-suspended extradition bill. Later that night, people returning from an earlier protest, along with journalists and other MTR passengers, were beaten up by a group of men wearing white shirts in Yuen Long.
At a press conference on Thursday, Chief Superintendent John Tse Chun-chung of the Police Public Relations Branch said that “generally-inclusive warnings”, which means applying to the entire protest site, were issued at 8 p.m. to protesters in the Sheung Wan area, asking them to leave, before clashes erupted, the Hong Kong Economic Journal reported.
Tse pointed out that while the demonstrators threw hard objects, such as bricks, at the police during the clearance operation, the officers only used non-lethal weapons such as tear gas and sponge grenades to deter their attacks.
According to police data, a total of 55 cans of tear gas, five rounds of rubber bullets and 24 sponge grenades were fired that night.
Police had earlier claimed that some demonstrators lobbed petrol bombs at the officers. But Tse clarified that police only found an unused petrol bomb at the Rumsey Street Car Park in Sheung Wan.
In response to the question that a police officer reportedly took a shot at a demonstrator from a flyover without prior warning, Tse said police issued “generally-inclusive warnings” more than once, both verbally and by raising flags.
He said he believed the officer saw a colleague being assaulted by a protester under the flyover and thus fired a sponge grenade.
Regarding the Yuen Long attacks, Chan Hon-ming, deputy commander of the Yuen Long Police District, said two responding officers arrived at the scene 11 minutes after a report was received, but they decided to call for backup and wait at a safe place after evaluating the situation, even though they both carried firearms.
Anthony Tsang Ching-fo, acting regional commander of New Territories North, told media that the backup did not arrive until 39 minutes later.
He acknowledged that the response took longer than their performance pledge of 15 minutes, adding that police may need to review personnel arrangements.
Still, Tsang stressed a command center was set up in Yuen Long that night, although he admitted that the police decided at the time that the incident presented a relatively lower risk than the clashes in Sheung Wan.
Asked if the police would apologize for what happened in Yuen Long, Tsang said police were “deeply saddened” that they were unable to “prevent the incident and the injuries of the public”.
He said the officers did their best in responding to the incident, but “there was a gap between operation deployment, the outcome of the incident and the expectation of the public”.
He said police may still have room for improvement when it comes to the deployment of officers.
As of Thursday, a total of 12 men, including nine with triad background, had been arrested in connection with the Yuen Long attacks.
The regional criminal unit of New Territories North is in charge of the case.
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