Panicked demonstrators attempt to enter Citic Tower, across from the Hong Kong Legislative Council, as police continue to fire teargas at them, June 12, 2019. Teargas is meant to force a crowd to disperse, but the police have trapped the demonstrators on all sides and they have nowhere to disperse. (From this video)

Why independent investigation of the systematic Hong Kong police attack on peaceful protesters on June 12 is urgently needed

Calls are growing for accountability for the systematic police attacks on peaceful protesters of the June 12 protest, with religious leaders joining in and Civil Human Rights Front cooperating with international human rights organizations to hold the Hong Kong government and police accountable.

In particular, the call is for the Chief Executive to set up an independent Commission of Inquiry, which the CE has the authority to do under HK law. A CI is for matters of great public interest. CIs have recently been conducted for the Lamma ferry disaster, lead in water, and shoddy construction at an MTR station.

How the police act toward citizens is clearly a matter of great public interest, and June 12 was one of the darkest days in HK history because the police were used not for law enforcement but to protect the regime from the people. They treated the people as the enemy and were deployed in military fashion to clear protesters from around government headquarters.

On June 12, I saw right before our eyes just how quickly a people can be deprived of its basic rights. It started the night before with mass stop&searches at Admiralty MTR that looked like something straight out of a jackboot dictatorship.

On June 12 itself, police use of force was disproportionate, indiscriminate and excessive. It was not meant to deal with the tiny minority of protesters who had charged police lines but to entirely disperse the tens of thousands of peaceful protesters gathered there.

Yes, as video evidence indicates, there were certainly individual cases of police abuse and misconduct, but the wider issue is that the police SYSTEMATICALLY carried out a sustained, hours-long attack on HK citizens many hours after the minor threat of a tiny minority of protesters charging police cordons had dissipated.

This systematic police attack on HK citizens is what the Independent Commission of Inquiry should focus on, and also why Carrie Lam saying “existing mechanisms” should be used to report police misconduct is so woefully inadequate as to constitute stonewalling.

Firstly, the “existing mechanisms” are only intended to deal with individual cases of police misconduct, not to address the matter of a wholesale police attack on tens of thousands of demonstrators. That’s what the inquiry must address.

The “existing mechanisms” are the Complaints Against Police Office, an office WITHIN the HK Police Force, which in the past has actively obstructed attempts to hold police officers accountable and can hardly be considered independent or neutral, and the Independent Police Complaints Council, a body meant to provide oversight over the police but which has no enforcement powers. It can only make recommendations to the police and the government (who are the culprits in the case at hand). The IPCC has been largely ineffectual in the past.

It’s worth looking at the history of attempts to hold HK police accountable, as it shows why the police acted as they did on June 12: they were confident of impunity.

On September 28, 2014, police fired 87 rounds of teargas at entirely peaceful demonstrators in an eight-hour attack that triggered the Umbrella Movement. HK people were uniformly outraged. An independent inquiry was called for. Nothing followed.

To this day, we don’t know who ordered the 28 September teargas attacks or why they went on for so long, hours after the reason the police gave for initially firing the teargas (they allege protesters were charging police cordons) no longer existed. No one has been held accountable for the first time HK police had attacked HK people with teargas since the 1960 leftist riots which involved bombs (while 28 September was entirely peaceful).

Instead, nine people were put on trial for ‘inciting public nuisance’, when an independent inquiry would have clearly shown that if anyone ‘incited’ the Umbrella Movement, it was the police (albeit unwittingly!). Four of those people are in prison now.

The lack of inquiry and accountability has lead to the HK police and government learning all the wrong lessons: At the slightest hint of uncontrollable protests, you hit ’em hard & hit ’em fast, you don’t allow them to settle in for 79 days. The police developed the philosophy of the deployment of overwhelming (rather than proportionate) force, and the government has aided and abetted this philosophy by purchasing much ‘crowd control’ equipment since 2014.

This is in a context in which Hong Kong people have for years protested peacefully in their hundreds of thousands. It would be difficult to find more peaceful protesters anywhere else in the world. On June 9 & 16, three million protested without any incidents of crime or violence. On June 16, police disappeared from the streets; we ‘policed’ ourselves.

Eight individual police officers were convicted of crimes against Umbrella Movement protesters, seven for beating up a prostate, handcuffed protester and one for gratuitously clubbing a young man with his baton. All eight were caught on video; otherwise, accountability wouldn’t have stood a chance. The seven were sentenced to two years in prison each and are appealing. The eighth served a three-month sentence.

The police actively attempted to obstruct investigation and prosecution of the eight officers. When the seven were convicted, an estimated 30,000 HK police officers turned out for a protest, showing that when they have to choose between law enforcement and protecting their own, we know which they’ll choose.

So: Umbrella Movement: no investigation of the abusive aspects of systematic policing (teargas, possible collusion with triad attacks on protesters, aiming batons at protesters’ heads, etc) and an uphill battle to prosecute eight officers who had committed crimes on video.

Then in 2016, police-protester clashes occurred in Mong Kok, the most violent between police and protesters since the 1960s. At one point, a police officer fired his pistol twice into the air. It was the first time a police officer had shot a gun at a protest in living memory. I remember thinking, We’re a step away from the first protest-related fatality.

The police conducted a cursory internal investigation that lasted all of two or three days and cleared all officers of any wrongdoing. The police officer who shot his pistol was later formally commended.

Evidence, including eyewitness accounts, suggests that police were responsible for triggering the clashes because of their heavy-handed policing.

Again, a Commission of Inquiry was called for to look into exactly what happened. Again, it was a matter of great public interest: the most violent clashes between police and protesters since the 1960s should be properly and independently investigated in order to prevent such occurrences from happening again. Again, the government did nothing.

Meanwhile, the HK government prosecuted 37 young people for ‘riot’ and related offenses. Twenty-seven were convicted & sentenced to a total of 77 years, two months and 21 days in prison. Message to police: you’re all right, they’re all wrong.

So this is how we got to June 12: No top-level accountability for past police misconduct, confidence in impunity among top-level officers, learning the wrong lessons from the Umbrella Movement and Mong Kok about applying overwhelming force in crowd control situations involving largely peaceful protest.

And so, at this point, the only way to stop this, the only way to ensure it doesn’t happen again, is to set up a Commission of Inquiry. Carrie Lam has shown she will only do this if she feels compelled to, the way she apologized and suspended the extradition bill only after 3.1 million had protested in three separate demonstrations.

If she doesn’t do it, then HK organizations like Civil Human Rights Front must work closely with international human rights organizations like Amnesty and Human Rights Watch to produce a conclusive and detailed report documenting the June 12 police attacks, specifying the ways in which they breached international law and making recommendations.

I believe appropriate measures should include the resignations of the Police Commissioner and the Secretary for Security, a full apology from the Hong Kong government and police which includes recognition of the severity of the offense perpetrated against the people of Hong Kong, and the revision of guidelines on police use of force in order to ensure something like June 12 never happens again.

If we don’t manage to hold the government and police accountable for June 12, the chances of the police becoming increasingly politicized and used as a militia to protect the regime from the people increase and police violence could get much worse.

After the Umbrella Movement, many thought, well, at least the police has learned its lesson, it won’t happen again. But 87 rounds of teargas were shot on September 28, 2014 versus 150 on June 12, 2019. On June 12, people were shot in the head with rubber bullets, which were used not in a targeted manner but indiscriminately.

And now the government and police are acting like this is just an incident to put behind us and individual complaints filed with CAPO & IPCC are sufficient recourse. This shows they refuse to recognize the reality of what occurred and makes independent investigation even more urgent.

My account of the June 12 protest can be found here.

Author of ‘Umbrella: A Political Tale from Hong Kong’ and ‘As long as there is resistance, there is hope: Essays on the Hong Kong freedom struggle…’