Thousands of people gathered outside a police station in a port area of Hong Kong Tuesday to demand the release of 44 anti-government protesters detained on charges of "rioting" following clashes in the Western district of Hong Kong Island on Sunday.
Many were chanting "Release them! Release them!", and "Go Hongkongers!" while others hurled obscenities at the "dodgy cops." Black spray-painted slogans repeated similar messages on the stone walls of Kwai Chung police station, near the major container port.
Protesters threw water bottles, umbrellas and street debris at a group of four or five officers clad in riot gear who were returning to the station, and had to pass through the crowd to get inside the station. The crowd shouted repeated obscenities at them as other protesters appealed for calm and the officers lashed out at the crowd with their batons and pepper spray.
Later, a larger group of police officers made a sortie from the main gate of the station, driving crowds away with batons and pepper spray, only to be met with another volley of water bottles. Outnumbered, they retreated back inside.
During earlier clashes on Sunday, police arrested 49 people aged between 16 and 41, after protesters set up barricades and flung pavement bricks at them. The police unleashed a continual volley of tear gas into the crowd, filling the streets with the acrid smoke and choking residents and families eating in nearby restaurants.
"After investigation and seeking legal advice, Police charged 44 persons for rioting," the police force said in a statement. "Among them, a 33-year-old man was also charged with assaulting a police officer. Separately, a 24-year-old man was charged with possession of offensive weapons."
All of the suspects will appear in the Eastern Magistrates' Court on Wednesday. Two other people were temporarily released, while two are on bail pending further investigation.
Earlier on Tuesday, protesters disrupted services on the Mass Transit Railway (MTR), forcing the temporary closure of several stations during morning rush-hour, while long lines formed down the street for replacement buses and trams.
A commuter surnamed Lee on the Kwun Tong Line said he understood and supported the protesters' actions as a form of civil disobedience in opposition to plans to allow the extradition of alleged criminal suspects to face trial in mainland China.
"I got to work an hour late, but I still think it should be supported, even though I could lose my hard-work bonus," Lee said.
"But even if it is a civil disobedience action, they didn't have very good contingency plans in place," said Lee.
Calls to resistance
The public mood has grown increasingly ugly during protests in recent days, with widespread support for more radical actions to force the administration of Carrie Lam to back down.
There have also been calls for a "revolution in our time," and to "reclaim Hong Kong," as well as slogans of solidarity with Edward Leung, a "localist" protester jailed for six years for rioting during the Mong Kok "fishball revolution" of 2016.
In that incident, scores of people were arrested after a dispute between police and unlicensed food vendors in the gritty Mong Kok working class district.
Public criticism of Lam and her administration has continued to grow, including from Hong Kong's usually compliant civil service, which will hold a rally calling for the formal withdrawal of the extradition amendments and for Lam to listen to protesters' demands.
Protesters have been calling for a full withdrawal of the amendments, saying Lam's assertion that they are "dead" carries little weight. They also call for an amnesty for those arrested since protests escalated on June 6, and an end to the use of "rioting" to describe the protests. In addition, the protesters are demanding fully democratic elections and an independent inquiry into police violence since the protests began.
Rights group weighs in
London-based rights group Amnesty International has said the police are largely to blame for protester violence, because they have a tendency to use tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets and batons to attack the crowd.
“The violent scenes in Yuen Long tonight were in part because Hong Kong police chose to inflame a tense situation rather than deescalate it," Amnesty International's Hong Kong director Man-kei Tam said in a statement after clashes in the border town of Yuen Long at the weekend.
It added that police justification that the protests hadn't received prior approval wasn't in line with international human rights standards.
"For police to declare today’s protest unlawful was simply wrong under international law," Tam said.
“While police must be able to defend themselves, there were repeated instances ... where police officers were the aggressors; beating retreating protesters, attacking civilians in the train station and targeting journalists," Tam said.
"Alarmingly, such a heavy-handed response now appears the modus operandi for Hong Kong police and we urge them to quickly change course."
Public anger began to spiral after a gang of triad-linked men in white shirts attacked train passengers at Yuen Long MTR station on July 21.
Nobody was arrested at the time, and police took around 40 minutes to move in on the attackers, who left dozens of people hospitalized, one in a critical condition. Media footage of the incident has shown a number of police vehicles passing groups of white shirted men gathering on the street prior to the attack, carrying rods and sticks, without taking any action.
Local media reported on Tuesday that the city's Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) had been requesting surveillance camera footage from local businesses, suggesting that they could be investigating allegations of misconduct in public offices linked to police failure to act on that day.
Beijing on Monday called on authorities in Hong Kong to take rapid steps to punish anyone who has broken its laws following weeks of angry protests over plans to allow extradition to mainland China.
Chinese officials have declined to comment on whether Beijing will order its People's Liberation Army (PLA) garrison to intervene in Hong
Kong, referring only to the city's mini-constitution, the Basic Law, which allows for that possibility if the request is made by the Hong Kong government.
Officials and state-run Chinese media have insisted that the protests are being orchestrated by overseas forces, a claim which the U.S. State Department has dismissed.
"We categorically reject the charge of foreign forces as being behind the protests," a State Department spokesman said in a statement on Monday. "It is not credible to think millions of people are bein manipulated to stand for a free and open society."
"The continued erosion of Hong Kong’s autonomy puts at risk its long-established special status in international affairs," the statement said.
The amendments are widely seen as a threat to Hong Kong's way of life, which was supposed to have been protected by the "one country, two systems" framework under which the former British colony was handed back to China in 1997.
If they become law, the city could lose its status as a separate legal jurisdiction and trading entity, while journalists, visitors, rights activists, dissidents, democratic politicians, and members of the business community could be targeted for words and actions deemed illegal by Chinese officials.
They could then be extradited to face trial in Chinese courts, which are directly controlled by the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
Students, march organizers, and pro-democracy lawmakers have all rejected government attempts at initiating discussions, saying that having their demands met would be a precondition for talks.
Reported by Man Hoi-tsan for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.