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People protest outside police headquarters, demanding Hong Kong’s leaders to step down and withdraw the extradition bill, in Hong Kong, China June 21, 2019. Photo by Ann Wang/Reuters

Hong Kong protests flare again after demands unmet

HONG KONG (AP) — Several hundred protesters, mainly students, gathered Friday outside Hong Kong government offices, with some blocking traffic on a major thoroughfare and others occupying the lobby of a government tax office.

The new protest actions came after a deadline passed for the government to meet demands over highly unpopular extradition bills that many see as eroding the territory’s judicial independence.

Police called for the demonstrators to disperse but did not immediately take firm action to remove them.

While the protest began peacefully, the presence again of demonstrators on busy Harcourt Road and in the lobby of the Revenue Tower raised the possibility of violent confrontations.

“I now appeal to the members of the public to leave as soon as possible,” police spokeswoman Yolanda Yu said at a news conference.

Outside, activist Joshua Wong called on police to answer demands over heavy-handed tactics used during a mass protest on June 12, including the firing of 150 rounds of tear gas, rubber bullets and beanbag rounds, and the beating of unarmed protesters by police with truncheons.

“We … urge police to apologize to the people” over the use of such tactics and their labeling of the gathering as a riot, Wong said.

Protest leaders have said they are determined to keep up the pressure on Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam, who has shelved but not abandoned the extradition legislation. She has insisted the bills are needed to uphold justice, but critics see them as part of a campaign by Beijing to diminish Hong Kong’s democratic institutions.

“I myself am not the type to get involved in violence,” student protester Brian Chow said. “I’ll just carry on sitting here, sing some Christian hymns, show our resistance, and keep the government paralyzed until it responds to us.”

Another student, who would only give her first name, Yvonne, said she was determined to maintain the movement’s momentum.

“I’m going to carry on coming out, and carry on protesting,” she said.

Many protesters have been wary of giving their full names and some have obscured their features with facemasks to guard their identities against potential retribution from government or school authorities.

Government offices were ordered closed Friday “due to security considerations,” and hearings at the Legislative Council were suspended.

Since the confrontations June 12, police have eased their approach, hoping to avoid a replay of 2014 protests, when officers unleashed 87 rounds of tear gas at protesters in the same location as the current protests. When the smoke from that response cleared, bigger crowds returned, angrier than before, and didn’t leave for nearly three months.

The bills would expand the scope of criminal suspect transfers to include mainland China, Taiwan and Macau. Legal and business groups in Hong Kong oppose the legislation, saying critics of China’s ruling Communist Party would be at risk of torture and unfair trials on the mainland and that it further chips away at the “one country, two systems” framework under which Hong Kong has been governed since 1997.

That framework guaranteed the territory the right to retain its own legal, economic and political system for 50 years, but the Communist Party under Chinese President Xi Jinping has been pushing ever more aggressively to quiet independent voices in Hong Kong. Beijing has squelched all reporting on the protests in mainland media and accused foreign forces of stirring up disturbances in Hong Kong.

Opposition to the legislation has come from a broad range of civic, human rights, legal profession and commercial organizations.

On Friday, the Hong Kong Bar Association reiterated is criticisms, saying Lam’s decision to suspend but not withdraw the bill was “wholly unsatisfactory” because it could still dictate the parameters of future consultation on the issues of surrender of fugitives and cross-border legal assistance.

The association also called for the setting up of an independent commission to investigate the June 12 violence, including whatever guidelines existed on the use of force by police against demonstrators.

Amnesty International went a step further, saying police must “end the unlawful use of force against peaceful protesters,” and issuing a report documenting 14 incidents of apparent police violence on June 12.

Officers appeared “out of control, placing peaceful protesters who posed no threat in danger of serious injury,” Man-kei Tam, the group’s Hong Kong director, said in a statement.

“The Hong Kong authorities should send a clear message that these failures in policing will not be tolerated. A thorough, independent and effective investigation needs to take place and any officers found responsible must face justice, at any level of the chain of command,” Tam said.

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