Report defends crackdown despite international outrage and allegations of brutality

Activists and legal experts have condemned a report by Hong Kong’s police watchdog that found the force’s response to the city’s protests to be justified and within regulations.

The Independent Police Complaints Council’s report, released on Friday, described the protests as the “most challenging public order situation in a generation”, and said allegations of brutality should not be used as a political weapon.

“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 IPCC report says. “While labelling police action as ‘brutality’, the protesters seem to disregard their own violence, vandalism and vigilantism.”

Protests broke out in June last year against a controversial bill allowing extradition to mainland China, but evolved into a broader pro-democracy movement that has continued despite the coronavirus pandemic.

Many of the protests turned violent. Protesters threw bricks and petrol bombs, while police used water cannon, rubber bullets and teargas against demonstrators and members of the press.

The IPCC has received more than 1,700 complaints, the majority relating to alleged misconduct and neglect of duty. Almost 200 complaints of assault were made. The largest number of complainants were reporters.

The Hong Kong government has routinely defended its police force, saying officers reacted to violence by protesters it characterised as rioters. No officer has ever been prosecuted, despite numerous acts of apparent misconduct towards protesters, media and bystanders being captured on film, and frequent condemnation by human rights groups and foreign governments.

Friday’s report supports the police force’s actions over the months of worsening confrontations, repeatedly finding them to be justified “in reaction to illegal action by protesters and for protection of themselves and others when attacked by violent protesters”.

It adds: “It cannot be overemphasised that allegations of police brutality must not be made a weapon of political protest.”

 Hong Kong police use pepper spray against people in ‘shopping protest’ – video

It made 52 recommendations, largely around improved training on the use of force and teargas, information handling and reviewing, controlling the use of the internet by protesters and managing public trust and perceptions.

It said the use of the internet was crucial in mobilising participation and spreading propaganda, hate towards police, speculation and unfounded claims, to launch rallies, perpetrate acts of violence, and promote “doxxing” of officers and their families.

Hong Kong watchers and pro-democracy figures expressed scepticism over the findings. The examination had been presented by Hong Kong authorities as the independent inquiry protesters sought as one of their five demands, but the IPCC has been labelled as not independent enough or having sufficient investigative powers, prompting the resignation last year of its international expert panel. It has no powers to compel the disclosure of information.

“The Independent Police Complaints Council’s report is a shocking whitewash which shows that there is no viable mechanism in Hong Kong to ensure accountability either for police brutality or police complicity with violence by criminal thugs,” said Benedict Rogers, co-founder and chair of Hong Kong Watch.

A Hong Kong lawmaker who was injured in the protests, and is suing the police over a July incident, said: “The IPCC repeatedly suggest the police force to enhance their PR skills to avoid any wrong allegations against them and they turn a blind eye to the brutal attacks and the wrongdoing.”

“There’s nothing [in the report] on disciplinary action or accountability,” said a Hong Kong based lawyer, Jason Ng. “What is the point?”

One of the international panel members who quit the IPCC study, Prof Clifford Stott, said the report had gaps in where it drew evidence from, and was missing some key stakeholders.

“IPCC reproduces [the] narrative that public view of police illegitimacy that grew from incidents on 21st July were based on misunderstanding,” he said.

Stott also posted a George Orwell quote to Twitter and said: “it would seem the release of the IPCC report is part of a wider set of coordinated announcements designed to deliver the new ‘truth’.”

An Apple Daily reporter, Alex Lam, noted the lack of investigative powers held by the IPCC. “This is the lens that we should read the IPCC report through. When IPCC says ‘there is no evidence’, it is probably because it is not allowed to investigate and find those evidence,” he said.

At a press conference on Friday, the Hong Kong chief executive said the report was “objective and based on fact” and denied it “glossed over” police misconduct. Carrie Lam said her government would accept all 52 recommendations, prioritising improving interactions with the press, and looking at ways to “stop lies spreading online”.

“The escalating violence must be stopped in a timely and effective manner otherwise it will undermine ‘one country two systems’, and … Hong Kong will be beyond redemption.”

Article originally appeared in The Guardian on 15 May 2020