International experts quitting Hong Kong police protest probe

Police standing guard in front of a bus stop in Hong Kong on Dec 9, 2019. PHOTO: AP

HONG KONG (AFP) - An international panel of experts hired to advise Hong Kong's police watchdog over its handling of huge pro-democracy protests announced on Wednesday (Dec 11) that they were quitting, in a major setback for the government.

The move came a month after a leaked statement from the group revealed they felt the city's police watchdog was not equipped to carry out a proper investigation.

Instead, they suggested a fully independent inquiry would be better suited for such a large task.

One of the core demands of protesters - alongside fully free elections - is an inquiry into the police, who have been left to battle black-clad activists for six months and are now loathed by significant chunks of the deeply polarised population.

But the city's pro-Beijing leader Carrie Lam and the police have repeatedly rejected those calls.

In a statement released on Wednesday, the panel said talks with the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) had made no headway in the last month.

"As a result, the IEP (Independent Expert Panel) has taken the decision to formally stand aside from its role," the statement said.

The experts also restated the criticisms it had of the police watchdog it was hired to assess.

"We ultimately concluded that a crucial shortfall was evident in the powers, capacity and independent investigative capability of IPCC," the experts said.

The panel was announced back in September and was chaired by Sir Dennis O'Connor, who had been tasked by the British government to write a report on the police after the 2011 London riots.

It included current or former police watchdog chiefs from Canada, Australia and New Zealand, and a British specialist on crowd behaviour.

Earlier this month, the chair of the IPCC gave an interview to a mainland Chinese media outlet rebuking the panel, saying they "do not understand Hong Kong's situation".

Critics say the IPCC lacks adequate investigatory powers, is stacked with pro-establishment figures and has been toothless when it comes to holding the police to account.

Monday marked the six-month anniversary of the protests, which were initially sparked by a now-abandoned attempt to allow extraditions to mainland China but have since morphed into a popular revolt against Beijing's rule.

The last three weeks have seen a rare lull in the violence and vandalism after pro-democracy parties won a landslide in local council elections.

On Sunday, an estimated 800,000 people marched peacefully through the city's streets.

An end to violence is something Mrs Lam has insisted must be a precursor to meaningful dialogue. But she has shown no sign she is willing to budge, leading to fears clashes could resume.

In her weekly press conference on Tuesday, she dismissed protesters' demands once more as she announced plans to go to Beijing this weekend where she is expected to meet Chinese leader Xi Jinping.

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