Hong Kong police hauled dozens of protesters through court yesterday to face draconian charges of rioting in a move likely to further stir violent unrest.
Charges were read against 23 people on Wednesday, accusing them of setting up road blocks, breaking fences, damaging street signs, and attacking police officers with “lethal weapons,” such as bricks.
It was the first time authorities have formally accused protesters of rioting – a charge that carries a possible 10-year prison sentence – since mass demonstrations broke out early June, plunging Hong Kong into its worst political turmoil since the former British colony was returned to Beijing.
The charges came amid reports that Chinese armed forces are mobilising on the border with Hong Kong. The White House is monitoring the military build up, sources told Bloomberg.
Protesters defied the lashing wind and rain of an incoming typhoon to gather outside court where demonstrators appeared before the judge to be formally charged with rioting. The indicted included a teacher, a nurse, an airline pilot, a barber, a chef, an electrician, a construction worker and unemployed people, according to their charge sheets. A 16-year-old girl was also among the group. The eldest was 41.
Braving the weather, protesters chanted: “Release the righteous… There are no rioters, only tyranny… reclaim Hong Kong, the revolution of our times.”
Violent clashes ending in injuries and arrests are occurring nearly every day now in the former British colony as protesters angry with the government continue to go head-to-head with the police.
On Tuesday spontaneous violent protests broke out outside the police headquarters as the new rioting charges were announced for the first time.
Clashes between police and demonstrators took an extraordinary turn when crowds were targeted with fireworks shot from a moving car.
At least six people were injured in the drive-by captured on video and shared widely on social media. The attacks are likely to sow further confusion amid the escalating crisis in Hong Kong, after protesters were targeted last week by a mob linked to triad gangs.
Hong Kong police on Wednesday arrested three men on criminal damage and common assault, and said they will “spare no effort in investigating all illegal and violent acts”.
The charges formally levelled at protesters are likely to further enrage demonstrators, who first demanded the formal withdrawal of an extradition bill that would send suspects to face trial in mainland China, where Communist Party control of the courts contributes to a 99.9 per-cent conviction rate.
Protesters have since expanded their demands to include the resignation of Hong Kong’s chief executive Carrie Lam, the convening of an independent commission to investigate police brutality against the protesters, and the release of those arrested – at least 170 people so far.
Continuing unrest is fuelling concerns that China’s central government in Beijing might deploy the military,which would be reminiscent of the 1989 bloody crackdown in Tiananmen Square.
In comments to Bloomberg on Wednesday, an anonymous US government official said the White House is monitoring a congregation of Chinese forces along the border to Hong Kong, though the nature of the build-up isn’t clear. China’s ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Wednesday she wasn’t aware of a situation on the border.
The Chinese central government reiterated earlier this week that it supported Hong Kong’s leader and police in cracking down to maintain order, and that Beijing would only send troops at the request of city officials.
China has also accused Western nations of sowing discord in the city as a way to destabilise China.
“If the turbulence continues, the whole of Hong Kong society will pay the cost,” said Yang Guang, a spokesman for the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs office, which reports to China’s cabinet.
The Hong Kong government estimates the PLA maintains a garrison of 8,000 to 10,000 troops in Hong Kong, along with a naval squadron and a helicopter regiment; more troops are stationed in neighbouring Shenzhen.
Demonstrations are planned through to late August.