Chief Executive Carrie Lam has defended a controversial extradition bill whilst dismissing claims she received instructions from Beijing to implement the law. Her comments come a day after the largest protest in Hong Kong since the 1997 Handover.
Sunday’s largely peaceful “million-strong” march saw Hong Kong Island come to standstill as protesters demanded Lam step down and the looming extradition bill be scrapped. The demonstration ended in a clashes between police and demonstrators around the legislature and government headquarters, with pepper spray deployed to disperse crowds.
Protest organisers said 1.03 million people took part on Sunday, whilst police said 240,000 people were present at the rally’s peak.
But Lam doubled down on her commitment to the bill on Monday, echoing earlier arguments that it was necessary to plug a legal loophole in extradition agreements: “As responsible officials standing here, we are duty-bound to address that deficiency,” she told reporters. “We are doing this out of our clear consciousness and commitment to Hong Kong.”
The city’s leader pointed to concessions made on two occasions as evidence of the government’s receptive response to public concerns, while saying that she wished to seek balance among different voices.
Hong Kong’s government first proposed legal amendments in February to allow the city to handle case-by-case extradition requests from jurisdictions with no prior agreements, most notably China and Taiwan. The plan would enable the chief executive and local courts to handle extradition requests without legislative oversight and could reach a final vote before the current legislative period ends in July.
The plans have plunged the city’s government into a political crisis as lawyers, journalists, foreign politicians and businesses have raised concerns over the risk of residents being extradited to the mainland, in a rare display of cross-sector unity.
Lam also expressed “strong regret” over the violent clashes that left police officers, journalists and others injured, though she acknowledged that the march was mostly conflict-free: “We will seek responsibility fully,” she added. “Hong Kong is proud of its rule of law.”
The protest turned ugly as police attempted to clear protesters in Admiralty when their permit expired at around midnight. Some protesters formed barricades on Lung Wo Road using metal barriers and trash. The road was often a flashpoint during the 2014 democracy protests.
Police Commissioner Stephen Lo condemned the violence on Monday morning, saying it could not be justified as freedom of speech. He also said perpetrators had “destroyed” the city’s tradition of peaceful protest and promise to bring those responsible to justice.
Lo visited three police officers who were injured during the clashes – two sustained head injuries and the other hurt his leg.
Protest organisers, the Civil Human Rights Front, are set to meet the media at 1pm on Monday, with the extradition bill due to arrive at the main legislative chamber on Wednesday.
Correction 11/6: A previous version of this piece incorrectly cited the police turnout figure.
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