Hong Kong, June 19 (IANS) Hong Kong’s security chief John Lee Ka-chiu on Wednesday said that the police should not take the blame for the political row over the controversial extradition bill, as he apologized to the public for the rift caused by the government’s handling of the proposal.
The bill, which was first proposed in February, would allow suspects to be sent to China for trial. It has met massive opposition across the region over concerns by human rights organizations that it would allow activists, non-profit workers and journalists be tried under a Chinese judicial system which offers no guarantees.
Massive protests forced the government to announce on Saturday the suspension of the highly divisive bill. Despite the announcement, another mass protest went ahead on Sunday, attended by nearly 2 million people, according to organisers.
Secretary for Security Lee repeatedly dodged calls from the pro-democracy camp for him to step down, instead echoing Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s words that it was time for society to move on from the controversy, the South China Morning Post reported.
“As part of the team overseeing the legislative amendment, like the Chief Executive, I’d like to apologize for the controversies and rifts it has caused in society,” he said.
Lee was grilled by opposition lawmakers during a question and answer session at the Legislative Council on the government’s refusal to withdraw the bill and the police’s alleged use of excessive force during last week’s clashes.
“If the public has any discontent with the government, please don’t vent it against our officers, because they were also threatened with violence.”
Chief Executive Lam on Tuesday offered her “most sincere apology” to all people in Hong Kong over the government’s deficiencies in handling the extradition bill.
During clashes between the police and tens of thousands of protesters last week, the police fired 150 rounds of tear gas. Rubber bullets and beanbag rounds were also used against protesters.
The Security Minister, who was a high-ranking police officer before joining the Cabinet, acknowledged the public backlash and subsequent anxiety, but said any discontent with the government should not be directed at the police force.
“They were also treated violently (by protesters) … officers’ lives were threatened,” Lee said, adding that the police defence barriers were rushed by protesters, some of whom threw bricks and metal bars at officers.
That, he said, left them with little choice but “to use minimum force like tear gas and rubber bullets, which was compatible with overseas standards”.
The police arrested 32 protesters in connection with the unrest, including five for rioting offences. In an apparent effort to pacify protesters, Lee on Wednesday refrained from mentioning the rioting arrests.