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Hong Kong police watchdog clears force over protest response

Carrie Lam spoke in front of a backdrop filled with pictures of violent protests alongside the slogan 'The Truth About Hong Kong'
Carrie Lam spoke in front of a backdrop filled with pictures of violent protests alongside the slogan 'The Truth About Hong Kong' Anthony WALLACE AFP
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Hong Kong (AFP)

Hong Kong's police watchdog Friday exonerated officers for their handling of violent democracy protests last year, concluding that public anger towards the city's force was the result of online smear campaigns.

The report by the Independent Police Complaints Council (IPCC) into the protests said accusations of brutality against police had become "a weapon of political protest" and cleared the force of any major wrongdoing.

The city's chief executive Carrie Lam welcomed the "objective" report, but the findings were dismissed by protesters and opposition figures who have long called the watchdog a toothless organisation and have made an independent judge-led inquiry into the police force one of their core demands.

Hong Kong was battered by seven months of democracy protests last year that upended the city's reputation for stability and left it deeply polarised.

The protests were initially sparked by a now scrapped bill to allow extraditions to China's party controlled courts.

But they soon snowballed into a popular revolt against Beijing's rule after years of rising fears that the city's freedoms were slipping.

Millions attended peaceful marches but violence routinely broke out with masked protesters throwing petrol bombs and rocks against riot police armed with tear gas and rubber bullets.

International and local rights groups have accused police of using excessive force while viral videos of officers beating protesters during arrests saturated social media and intensified public anger.

- 'The Truth' -

Speaking in front of a backdrop filled with pictures of violent protests alongside the slogan "The Truth About Hong Kong" on Friday afternoon, Lam described the report as "comprehensive, objective, fact-based and very heavy-weighted".

At the start of the year she vowed to heal the divisions in the city but her administration has done little in the way of reconciliation.

In the press conference, Lam said the government will speed up prosecutions against more than 8,300 arrested protesters and again rejected a core public demand for an independent inquiry to investigate the police.

"I disagreed and I won't do it, especially when the nature of the movement has changed after a year... that is to use violence to threaten the government to concede to their demands," Lam added.

The IPCC report said police were not to be blamed for the public animosity they faced.

"The protests have been driven and continue to be driven by a consistent and continuing message of hatred against the police, repeated particularly on the internet," the report's authors wrote.

"While labelling police action as 'brutality', the protesters seem to disregard their own violence, vandalism and vigilantism," it added.

Specific allegations of excessive violence used by police officers should be investigated by the police's own complaints procedure, the report added.

The IPCC was a controversial body even before last year's protests.

Rights groups and critics say it is stacked with former officers and pro-establishment figures, lacks investigative powers and cannot summon witnesses.

Late last year a group of international policing experts stepped down from advising the panel concluding it had neither the resources nor expertise to do the job properly.

The city's Civic Party slammed the report for being "biased" and "pro-police".

"Instead of supervising the various problems emerged from police's law enforcing operations, the report mainly criticised the citizens," a Civic Party statement said.

Claudia Mo, a pro-democracy lawmaker, said the report had "spun the facts in the favour for the police".

"It will just consolidate and further strengthen people's wishes for a proper probe into police brutality," she told AFP.

IPCC investigators said there were some moments when police could have done a better job.

Criticism was levelled at the force for failing to adequately protect the city's legislature when it was besieged by protesters.

And it said officers could have responded more quickly to an attack on protesters by a group of government loyalists armed with sticks.

But the IPCC's overall conclusion was of a police force facing down its biggest challenge in decades.

"The protests were accompanied by a scale of lawlessness with a degree of violence and vandalism not seen in Hong Kong since the riots of 1967," the authors wrote.

"Under the violence they had to face in performance of their duty, the police had found it necessary to resort on occasions to the use of force."

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