Rally in Central ends in chaos amid tear gas, arrests

January 20, 2020 12:39
About 150,000 attended the rally in Central on Sunday, organizers said, although police estimated the crowd at 11,680 at the peak. Photo: HKEJ

Police fired tear gas at a pro-democracy rally in Central on Sunday after some protesters blocked roads, set fires, engaged in vandalism and attacked officers.

The protest, although approved by the police, descended into chaos after it was terminated earlier than scheduled.

Activist Ventus Lau Wing-hong, spokesman for the rally’s organizer Hong Kong Civil Assembly Team, was arrested later in the night, the Hong Kong Economic Journal reports.

Organizers had originally applied for a march from Central to Causeway Bay on Sunday to call for global sanctions against Hong Kong officials who they said were undermining human rights in the city.

However, the police only issued a letter of no objection for an assembly in Chater Garden and Chater Road Pedestrian Precinct between 2 p.m. and 10 p.m.

Before the rally started, police officers had been dispatched to guard several buildings considered “high risk” in the vicinity of Chater Garden, such as the police headquarters, Bank of China Tower and HSBC Main Building, while others were seen patrolling near the Central and Admiralty MTR stations as well as conducting checks on black-clad pedestrians.

Not long after the rally got underway, some black-clad protesters began to set up roadblocks, damage traffic lights and deface nearby buildings.

The protesters also spray-painted graffiti at the wooden boxes covering the bronze lion statues that had been vandalized in previous protests outside the HSBC headquarters. A spokesman for the bank expressed regret that its facilities once again fell victim to "irrational vandalism".

In a post on its Facebook page, the police force said officers were surrounded by rioters who threw water bottles and other objects at them, and the rioters also built barricades using railings, traffic cones and umbrellas at Des Voeux Road Central and Ice House Street.

In view of the violence, officers “have asked the organizers to suspend the public meeting in Chater Garden and urged the participants to head towards Admiralty and leave the area by public transport”, according to the Facebook post.

Anti-riot police then arrived at the scene to conduct a dispersal operation, using tear gas and pepper spray against protesters.

Four plainclothes officers who asked Lau to call off the rally ended up being surrounded and beaten by protesters. After they fled to Cheung Kong Center, they were again attacked by protesters with sticks and bricks. One of the officers left bloodied.

At least 10 people were arrested during the police operation.

Speaking to reporters in the evening, Lau said about 150,000 attended the rally, although police estimated the turnout at 11,680 at the peak.

Lau said the rally descended into chaos because the police had rejected the application for a march, forcing the crowds to gather in a small place.

The activist also accused plainclothes officers who asked him to end the rally of not showing warrant cards, saying police should take full responsibility for the disorder.

Moments after Lau finished speaking, two officers came up to him and took him into a car.

Speaking to media on Sunday night, Senior Superintendent Ng Lok-chun of the Hong Kong Island Region, said Lau was arrested for inciting the public and for breaching the terms of the letter of no objection issued for the rally because he failed to assist in maintaining order.

The Hong Kong Civil Assembly Team on Monday morning said Lau’s charges had been changed to obstruction of a police officer for the execution of duty and violating the terms of the letter of no objection issued for the rally.

Ng said the rally was peaceful at the beginning, but was hijacked by a group of rioters.

A government spokesman also condemned the rioters, saying their acts completely disregarded law and order.

“While the police officers were discussing matters relating to the assembly with its person-in-charge, they were suddenly attacked by a number of rioters for no reason. Without any anti-riot equipment, the officers, sustaining injuries, immediately left the scene after the attacks but still continued to be assaulted by rioters with poles and other weapons. The violent attacks were outrageous,” the spokesman said in a statement.

In another statement, the spokesman said: “The HKSAR Government deeply regrets that some participants of the public meeting had called on foreign governments to intervene in the affairs of Hong Kong and to impose sanctions. Foreign governments, legislatures or organizations have absolutely no role in matters relating to the constitutional development of Hong Kong and should not express any opinion or take any action in an attempt to influence or interfere in the discussions of related matters in Hong Kong.”

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