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Hong Kong protests

Hong Kong police watchdog backs controversial handling of protests

Report falls short of public expectations as city's political tensions intensify

A student runs from riot police in Hong Kong in November 2019. In a 1,000-page report submitted on Friday, the Independent Police Complaints Council examined more than 20,000 protest videos and reviewed nearly 7,700 public complaints.   © Reuters

HONG KONG -- A Hong Kong police watchdog found the force's contentious handling of the monthslong anti-government protests "reasonable" in a long-awaited report released on Friday, while conceding that there is "room for improvement" in officers' operation guidelines.

The report fell short of expectations from the public and government critics, who have been calling for a legally binding and independent inquiry into alleged police brutality -- one of the protesters' major demands that the city's leader has repeatedly rejected.

In a news conference on Friday evening, Chief Executive Carrie Lam applauded the "comprehensiveness" and "objectiveness" of the report, saying that it "presents the truth of what happened in the protests."

Lam said she would set up a task force to follow up on the report's recommendations, but she refused to conduct independent investigations as has been demanded by many members of the public.

In a 1,000-page report submitted to Lam, the Independent Police Complaints Council, or IPCC, examined more than 20,000 protest videos and reviewed nearly 7,700 public complaints in its inquiry into police officers' behavior during the former British colony's largest social movement in decades.

"The protests of the last 10 months have metamorphosized from initial peaceful processions and public meetings to extreme forms of violent protests in the streets," Anthony Neoh, chairman of the IPCC, said at a news conference. "Under the violence [the police force] had to face in performance of their duty... it is necessary to resort on occasions to the use of force."

Protesters, as well as human-rights groups including Amnesty International, have accused the police of disproportionate use of force and other forms of abuse when handling the pro-democracy demonstrations, which often descended into violent clashes between police and demonstrators.

More than 16,000 rounds of tear gas, over 12,000 rubber bullets and beanbag rounds, and 19 lethal live rounds, have been fired in the protests, according to the report, which covers the period from June 2019 to March 2020. Protesters themselves have thrown petrol bombs at government buildings and vandalized pro-Beijing shops and metro stations.

Neoh emphasized that the study was a "fact-finding exercise" in lieu of an investigation into the conduct of individual officers. The IPCC report, which detailed the council's observations and recommendations, aims to "improve future public-order policing and strengthen public trust of the police."

Public trust in the police force has plunged to a historic low since the onset of the protests, with nearly 70% of Hong Kong citizens giving officers a failing score in a recent survey conducted by the Chinese University of Hong Kong. About 80% of people in Hong Kong support an independent inquiry into the police force.

Jimmy Sham of the Civil Human Rights Front, the organizer of the city's largest peaceful protests last year, compared the report to a "public relations show."

"It is clearly biased, but I'm not surprised since the IPCC members are all directly appointed by the chief executive," he said, vowing to continue to organize protests after the coronavirus outbreak is contained.

A group of demonstrators have called the IPCC a "toothless commission" and a "joke" as it is not empowered with rights to gather evidence or call witnesses.

"Hong Kongers have spoken loud and clear for almost a year for an independent investigation on the police force and even a wholesale reorganization of the force, but none of this is close to being delivered thus far," said a spokesperson from Citizens' Press Conference, a self-organized protesters group.

The report also faces credibility concerns after a panel of five foreign experts quit their advisory roles in December, citing doubts over its "independent investigative capability."

Some scholars believe that the report will not gain sufficient legitimacy in the eyes of the public because of the limited power of the IPCC and its reliance on information supplied by the police.

"The report seems to have provided some technical suggestions that might be useful in the long term, but the current deadlock and crisis is about [the lack of] trust [in the authorities]," said Lawrence Ho Ka-ki, a social sciences professor at the Education University of Hong Kong who specializes in public policy and policing. "The report obviously cannot meet the expectations from the public."

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