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Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Hong Kong protests: Demonstrators trapped at Polytechnic University as court overturns mask ban

At least 38 people were injured in a protracted battle at the university Sunday, the city’s Hospital Authority said, after a bloody battle in which a police officer was struck by an arrow and demonstrators set a police van on fire.

By: New York Times | Published: November 19, 2019 8:23:15 am
Hong Kong protests: Demonstrators trapped at Polytechnic University as court overturns mask ban Many tried to escape Hong Kong Polytechnic University on Monday, in Hong Kong. The police offered protesters one way out of the besieged university campus, raining tear gas and rubber bullets on those who attempted to flee. (Lam Yik Fei/The New York Times)

Written by Elaine Yu and Russell Goldman

Police officers Monday cornered hundreds of student protesters who occupied a Hong Kong university, offering the demonstrators one way out: Drop your weapons and surrender or be met with a hail of tear gas and rubber bullets.

For days, the protesters have held police off from entering the campus of Hong Kong Polytechnic University, fortifying their holdout with homemade fire bombs, giant sling shots, bricks and bows and arrows.

At least 38 people were injured in a protracted battle at the university Sunday, the city’s Hospital Authority said, after a bloody battle in which a police officer was struck by an arrow and demonstrators set a police van on fire.

As other protests raged across the city, Hong Kong’s High Court on Monday struck down a contentious ban on the wearing of face masks in public. The court found that the ban, enacted in October, violated the territory’s miniconstitution, know as the Basic Law.

In Washington, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the United States was “gravely concerned” by the deepening mayhem, urging all sides to exercise restraint.

The Hong Kong protests began in June over legislation, since scrapped, that would have allowed extraditions to mainland China, and have expanded to include a broad range of demands for police accountability and greater democracy.

Here’s the latest:

Police Offer No Safe Passage From Besieged University

Running out of weapons and supplies, protesters at PolyU on Monday sought to flee the campus, only to find all their routes blocked by a cordon of heavily armed riot police officers and a hailstorm of tear gas and rubber bullets.

The students Monday afternoon tried unsuccessfully to rush a police cordon only to be pushed back into the campus. Despite running out of options, the students feared that following police instructions to “drop their weapons” and leave through one designated exit would result in their arrest.

The protesters, many of them university and high school students, have occupied the campus for a week. On Sunday night and well into Monday morning they clashed with police in one of the most violent confrontations in months of conflict.

At least 500 protesters remained on campus by Monday afternoon, after police tried to enter the campus that morning but were pushed back.

By nightfall, about 100 people staged a sit-in directly in front of the police cordon near the university, including women who appeared to be mothers of trapped protesters sobbing and being comforted by others.

“Most of the people here are parents,” said Claudia Mo, a pro-democracy lawmaker who joined the rally. “They realize once their children get out they will be immediately arrested. They just want to take a look at their kid and see if he or she is OK.”

Conditions on the campus have grown increasingly desperate with injured protesters unable to receive treatment, Owan Li, a student council member, told reporters. Student leaders said protesters suffered eye injuries and hypothermia after being struck by a stinging dye shot from a police water cannon.

Trying to mediate the stalemate, Jasper Tsang, founder of Hong Kong’s largest pro-Beijing political party, arrived at the university late Monday evening. Tsang spoke to several protesters at a lectern and said he was willing to accompany their departure from the university to help ensure their safety.

Later, dozens of protesters lined up at the designated exit and were arrested on rioting charges by police. It was not immediately clear whether they had departed because of Tsang’s mediation. Nor was it clear how many students remained on the campus.

Areas near the university had the feel of a battle zone, with streets engulfed by tear gas and fires.

Scores were arrested by police Monday morning near the university. A large group of people were seen seated outside a hotel in the Tsim Sha Tsui district of Kowloon, their hands zip-tied behind their backs.

It was unclear if the bulk of the arrestees were protesters trying to flee the campus or allies responding to calls for help evacuating protesters.

Police said that they arranged for Red Cross volunteers to enter the campus in the afternoon and provide first aid to the injured, and that the force would assist those who needed to go to the hospital “before further investigation,” implying that arrests would wait until after their treatments.

Fernando Cheung, a pro-democracy lawmaker who was in touch with social workers, said that some of the young people trapped inside were “close to breaking down.”

Police said 154 people were arrested over the weekend, bringing the total number of arrests to 4,491 since the protests started in June.

Court Rules Against Ban on Face Masks

The city’s High Court on Monday struck down a ban on wearing face masks in public, issuing a blow to the local government’s ability to characterize the ongoing protests as a situation that requires the invocation of emergency powers.

The ban, which was enacted in October, quickly inflamed tensions in the city and set off a series of violent clashes. The city’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, imposed the ban without seeking legislative approval by invoking powers granted under the rarely used Emergency Regulations Ordinance, or ERO.

In its ruling, the court said the ban violated the city’s miniconstitution, known as the Basic Law, because it was too vague and endangered the ability of the Legislative Council, or LegCo, to make the territory’s laws.

“The ERO is so wide in its scope, the conferment of powers so complete, its conditions for invocation so uncertain and subjective, the regulations made thereunder invested with such primacy, and the control by the LegCo so precarious, that we believe it is not compatible with the constitutional order laid down by the Basic Law,” the court said in its ruling.

Masks have been worn by protesters since the early days of the movement, as a way for protesters to conceal their identities and protect themselves from the pepper spray and tear gas routinely deployed by police. Many protesters saw the law as a pretext that would allow officers to arrest nonviolent demonstrators in order to discourage people from joining the street actions.

“The judgment affirms the importance of separation of powers and fundamental freedoms under our constitutional order,” said Simon Young, a professor at the University of Hong Kong Law School.

U.S. ‘Gravely Concerned’ About Escalating Chaos

Pompeo called for all sides in the escalating Hong Kong conflict to exercise restraint, and said the territory’s government should start an independent investigation into violent incidents that have punctuated the pro-democracy protests. Such an investigation presumably would include reviewing accusations of police misconduct.

“The United States is gravely concerned by the deepening political unrest and violence in Hong Kong, including the standoffs between protesters and police at Hong Kong Polytechnic University and other campuses,” Pompeo told a news conference in Washington. “We have repeatedly called for restraint from all parties in Hong Kong.”

“The Hong Kong government bears primary responsibility,” he said, adding that the conflict could not be resolved by law enforcement alone.

He called for the government to “take clear steps to address public concerns,” and stressed that Lam should “promote accountability” by putting in place an independent investigation.

For months, protesters have demanded an inquiry into what they call abuses against activists and bystanders by police officers. As tensions have grown, police have increasingly used tear gas, rubber bullets, pepper spray and water cannons loaded with chemicals that cause pain on contact with skin. Police have deployed all of those weapons in the siege of Polytechnic University, which began Saturday night.

Last Thursday, President Xi Jinping of China made his toughest comments so far about the protests. According to a People’s Daily report of a speech Xi gave in Brazil, he said China “staunchly supports the Hong Kong police in sternly enforcing the law, and the Hong Kong judicial authorities in punishing violent criminals.”

At the news conference Monday, Pompeo said “the Chinese Communist Party must honor its promises to the Hong Kong people,” as enshrined in the agreement that transferred British sovereignty over Hong Kong to China. The agreement guarantees China will allow Hong Kong to maintain a semiautonomous political and legal system for 50 years under a governance model commonly called “one country, two systems.”

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