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Opinion

Police report on Hong Kong protests is a shameful whitewash

It exonerated officers' violence and tried to lay blame on protesters

| Hong Kong
Police officers detain an anti-government protester in December 2019: the report glossed over police misconduct.   © Reuters

Jason Y. Ng is a convener of the Progressive Lawyers Group, an advocacy group that promotes and defends Hong Kong's rule of law and civil liberties.

On Friday, when the Independent Police Complaints Council, Hong Kong's police watchdog, released its long-awaited report on the police's handling of last year's protests and social unrest, Hong Kongers were not surprised that it was a whitewash.

The report glossed over egregious and widely publicized incidents of police misconduct, such as when one officer plowed his motorcycle into a crowd of protesters, or when another dropped an oil-drum-sized garbage bin from a footbridge on to unsuspecting demonstrators.

Armed assaults on citizens were diminished to "street fights" and "brawls," while delayed responses and inaction by officers during an attack of thugs were sugarcoated as "miss[ed] opportunities to provide visible police intervention."

This thousand-page travesty was a report card on Hong Kong's governance and social justice -- but while it thought it was exonerating the police, it was actually damning the city's entire political system.

The IPCC's effort had been doomed from the start. In December, all five experts on an international panel hired by the IPCC abruptly resigned over the body's lack of investigative powers. After that, progress was stalled first by a court challenge to the body's authority and then by the coronavirus outbreak.

The IPCC's lack of investigative powers helped to exonerate the police. In many cases, the watchdog's inability to call witnesses or conduct other forms of independent inquiry led it to dismiss the allegations based on "a lack of supporting evidence."

Anthony Neoh, left, chairman of the IPCC, looks at the report with vice chairman Hon Tony Tse Wai-chuen at the press conference on May 15: the IPCC's lack of investigative powers helped to exonerate the police.   © AP

To rub salt in our wounds, the report, which made no recommendations about disciplinary or prosecutorial actions against offending officers, shifted the blame to the complainants themselves.

The IPCC repeatedly characterized protesters as "aggressive," "radical" and "lawless," and called their actions "vigilantism" and "incipient terrorism." While there is "room for improvement" in the police's performance, they were portrayed as victims of physical violence and cyberbullying.

In fact, there was so much emphasis on the protesters' supposed "escalating violence" and "blatant propaganda" against law enforcement that the document read more like a study on protesters' misconduct rather than the police's.

While the protests started as large-scale demonstrations over a controversial government proposal that would allow suspects to be extradited to mainland China, police violence and their seeming impunity, now confirmed, became the focal point.

Police violence continued to draw demonstrators to the streets in great numbers: armed officers were caught on video shooting a cocktail of rubber bullets, sponge grenades and even live ammunition at protesters, journalists and passersby. Stories of the arrested being physically or sexually abused by officers came to light.

A survey conducted last November found that nearly 70% of Hong Kong residents disapproved of the police's handling of the anti-extradition protests, while another poll showed that over 80% supported the establishment of an independent commission to look into the excessive use of police force.

An independent inquiry would certainly have touched a nerve with the police. Afraid of losing their support when she needed it most, embattled Chief Executive Carrie Lam tried to placate angry citizens by leaving the issue to the IPCC. She repeatedly called on the public to "have faith in the established mechanism" to bring justice and accountability.

But after holding our breath for nearly a year, all we have now are sighs of disappointment. Amnesty International blasted the IPCC report as "impotent and biased." Clifford Stott, one of the overseas experts who quit last December, called the document "part of a wider set of coordinated announcements designed to deliver the new 'truth'." He said its release among a barrage of distressing news stories on Friday was an attempt to divide the public's attention.

This outcome is perhaps hardly surprising. The IPCC has long been criticized for its conflict of interest and limited powers. In 2013, the U.N. Human Rights Committee expressed concerns that "investigations of police misconduct [in Hong Kong] are still carried out by the police themselves" and that the IPCC "has only advisory and oversight functions... and the members are appointed by the Chief Executive."

The solution to festering public discontent and a severely discredited police force is to establish an independent commission of inquiry -- one of the so-called five key demands made by protesters. Numerous local civil society groups and international human rights watchdogs, including the Hong Kong Bar Association, Amnesty International and the U.N. Commissioner for Human Rights, have all expressed support for the proposal.

With the IPCC's image now conclusively shattered and signs that mass demonstrations may flare up once again as the lockdown eases, it is the only option left on the table.

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