Hong Kong protesters mark six months since pivotal clash with police

Protesters during a rally in Hong Kong on Dec 12, 2019. PHOTO: REUTERS

HONG KONG (REUTERS) - Thousands of Hong Kong protesters gathered on Thursday (Dec 12) to mark six months since their first major clash with police, when they blocked legislators from advancing an extradition Bill that has since been scrapped.

On June 12, police fired tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse protesters occupying roads near the Legislative Council just as it was to give a second reading to the Bill that would have allowed criminal suspects to be extradited to mainland China, where courts are controlled by the Communist Party.

After the clash, the council reading was indefinitely postponed and the Bill later formally withdrawn. But outrage caused by the police response contributed to the unrest evolving into a broader movement calling for greater democracy.

Demonstrators' demands now include universal suffrage and an independent inquiry into the police handling of the protests.

Police have described their actions as reactive and restrained.

On Thursday, several thousand Hong Kongers of all ages gathered in a central park in the heart of the Chinese-ruled city's financial district for to mark the event, starting with a moment of silence.

"June 12 was a turning point in this movement," said Mark Chou, a 24-year-old engineer in the crowd. "We had a one million people peaceful march on June 9, but the government was still pushing the Bill forward at that time. This experience taught us peaceful protest would not work in this city."

Organisers were collecting Christmas cards to be sent to people arrested during demonstrations in the past six months.

Another core demand of the protesters is an amnesty for the more than 6,000 people arrested since June.

"We should never forget those who have sacrificed themselves fighting for Hong Kong people's freedom. If front-liners did not surround (the council) and stop the second reading, the Bill would have passed," said Mandy Chan, 23, a teaching assistant.

Her card read: "When you feel desperate, please keep your faith because we are all waiting for you and Hong Kong will be brighter when you are free to go." Elsewhere, hundreds queued at Tai Wai Po Fook Memorial Hall to lay flowers and mourn last month's death of Chow Tsz-lok, a 22-year-old student who fell from the third floor of a parking lot as protesters were being scattered by police.

Mourners line up to pay their respects to Mr Chow Tsz Lok, 22, who died last month from head injuries sustained during a fall inside a multi-storey carpark where police and protesters were clashing, at Po Fook Hill Cemetery in Hong Kong on Dec 12, 2019. PHOTO: AFP

In a sign the movement retains broad support, pro-democracy candidates won almost 90 percent of the seats in district council elections last month, while a peaceful march on Sunday drew 800,000 demonstrators, according to organisers, though police estimated the crowd at fewer than 200,000.

On Thursday morning, Hong Kong police said they arrested three people overnight - a 15-year-old girl, a 16-year-old boy and a 29-year-old man - in connection with vandalising public buses. A fourth person escaped, police said.

According to police reports, the four boarded buses, pressed the emergency buttons, then began smashing windows with hammers.

Police also said they received reports that five people threw petrol bombs at a Japanese restaurant on the street level of a shopping mall. There were no reported injuries.

Police said several other people started a fire at a street junction in Mong Kok, an area that has regularly been the site of clashes between protesters and police.

Police did not say the vandalism was connected to the protests.

Earlier this week, police said officers had defused two homemade bombs found at a centrally-located school.

Separately, the Hong Kong Football Club Rugby Section announced the cancellation of its annual rugby 10s tournament, scheduled for next April, due to the unrest. The 10s tournament is traditionally played ahead of the better-known Hong Kong Rugby Sevens, with both events drawing prominent names in the rugby world.

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