HONG KONG (BLOOMBERG) - Hong Kong police beat pro-democracy protesters in custody and committed acts that amount to "torture" during recent demonstrations, Amnesty International alleged in a new report that could fuel further unrest.
Police used "unnecessary and excessive force" in making arrests, beat a protester for declining to answer a question and then pinned him to the floor, shined laser pens in the eyes of people who had been detained, and threatened to electrocute a man's genitals after he refused to unlock his phone, the human rights group said.
Amnesty said it released its findings after an investigation that included interviews with 21 arrested protesters, corroborating interviews with healthcare workers who treated demonstrators and lawyers representing people who had been detained.
Out of 21 protesters interviewed, 18 were hospitalised for injuries or illnesses related to their arrest and detention, the group said, adding that it also reviewed medical records.
The Hong Kong Police said it would not comment on individual cases. In a statement released to Bloomberg News, it said police officers would give warning of their intention to use force when circumstances allowed.
Officers are required to use a "high level of restraint at all times", it said.
The rights group said it shared its findings with the Hong Kong Commissioner of Police on Wednesday (Sept 18), but had not yet received a response. Contacted on Thursday, police didn't have an immediate comment.
The group, which also shared its research with several members of the city's Legislative Council, said it was publicising its findings anyway, given the "gravity of the abuses", escalating violence on both sides and the possibility the "situation could deteriorate further in the coming weeks" ahead of protests planned to coincide with the Oct 1 anniversary of 70 years of communist rule in China.
Police have previously defended their tactics as necessary against radical protesters who have thrown bricks and petrol bombs at riot police over the course of often-violent demonstrations that have included the vandalising of subway stops and the setting ablaze of street barricades.
Chief Executive Carrie Lam this week defended her government and police from allegations of improper behaviour, saying the administration condemns all violence and all judicial proceedings were conducted in an "impartial manner".
"We act in accordance, in strict accordance, with the law based on the facts, so nobody should speculate or allege either my government or the police for being selective in the work that we are doing," she said on Tuesday before a meeting of the city's Executive Council.
Further protests are expected this weekend, including another so-called "stress test" of the international airport's transportation network.
"The evidence leaves little room for doubt - in an apparent thirst for retaliation, Hong Kong's security forces have engaged in a disturbing pattern of reckless and unlawful tactics against people during the protests," Mr Nicholas Bequelin, its East Asia director, said in a statement.
"This has included arbitrary arrests and retaliatory violence against arrested persons in custody, some of which has amounted to torture."
The report comes as US lawmakers ramp up pressure on Hong Kong's government, and could fuel more protests or support for a movement that has seized on aggressive police tactics to sustain its momentum, including the case of a woman who was hit in the eye.
Dissatisfaction with the police has become an increasingly important motivating factor in bringing demonstrators onto the streets, according to a survey led by the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
"Since mid-July, it had actually become the most important motivation for people to participate in the protests," researchers said.
Hong Kong police have come under international criticism as protests over since-scrapped legislation allowing extraditions to China shifted into calls for greater democratic accountability, and clashes between officers and demonstrators became increasingly violent.
The United Nations Human Rights Office said in August that police were using tear gas "in ways that are prohibited by international norms and standards" and "creating a considerable risk of death or serious injury".
Then-British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt announced a ban on export licences for crowd control equipment in June.
US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has also made calls to ban crowd control equipment exports and has said it was "alarming to watch the Hong Kong police with support from Beijing intensify their use of force against the protesters".
The Amnesty report also alleges that in several cases, protesters were "severely beaten in custody and suffered other ill-treatment amounting to torture".
Many required hospitalisation.
Some violence appears to have been "meted out as 'punishment' for talking back or appearing uncooperative".
Some arrested demonstrators were zip-tied and had their gas masks removed, and forced to sit in areas where tear gas was repeatedly being fired.
One person was taken to a separate room by officers after refusing to answer a question, beaten, and then held to the ground by an officer's knee. He was later hospitalised with a bone fracture and internal bleeding.
Several detained protesters had laser pointers shined directly into their eyes - after people shined laser pens at officers during protests.
Officers hit demonstrators with batons or fists while making arrests, "even when they were not resisting" or were already restrained.
One was hospitalised with a fractured rib.