HONG KONG (The Straits Times) — Embattled Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam broke her silence on Monday afternoon (July 15) to condemn “rioters” and praise police after violent clashes on Sunday night that left two people in critical condition and four in a serious state.
Mrs Lam said the police had acted “professionally” and practised “restrain” in dealing with the group of protesters who hung around New Town Plaza shopping mall in Sha Tin, hours after a rally had ended.
Speaking to the media at a Tai Po hospital, where six officers are still being treated, she said the police’s duty is to uphold the law and those who broke the law have to be taken to task. “Hong Kong society will not condone such violence,” she added.
Secretary for Security John Lee, who also visited the hospital, told reporters that the recent protests have escalated and become more serious and organised.
“Violent acts must not be rationalised or glamourised,” he warned.
The stern warning follows police chief Stephen Lo’s condemnation of the violent clashes between his officers and protestors on Sunday night that left 28 injured. Of these, 11 were officers, including two who lost their fingers.
Police said they arrested at least 37 people after the violence at New Town Plaza mall in New Territories.
Speaking after visiting injured officers at the Tai Po hospital in the wee hours of the morning, Mr Lo vowed to follow up investigations “to the very end” to bring those behind it to justice.
He said an officer had part of a finger bitten off by a protester, while others were hit by objects hurled at them.
Mr Lo told reporters that his team of officers had worked hard under immense pressure but have come under fire from the public for the way they have handled the series of protests in the city.
“When we mount an operation, they say we abuse our power to make arrests. When we stand back, they say we are setting up a trap,” he said.
Mr Lam Chi-wai, chairman of the Junior Police Officers’ Association on Monday told broadcaster TVB that protesters have made the assault of police officers a common occurrence, are adamant about not following the rule of law and this has caused great frustrations among the officers.
“The frustrations come from the past month of trying to keep society stable, to uphold the rule of law and protect Hong Kongers. Why do people treat the police this way?”
Mr Lam added that it is evident from yesterday’s clashes that the police deployed there did not have adequate protection gear and questioned the sense in having the officers engage protesters in close quarters.
Violence flared last night as officers moved to clear the streets and later, the shopping mall.
Organisers said some 115,000 people joined the Sha Tin rally, which is in the New Territories, on Sunday afternoon, while police put the number at 28,000.
The rally was largely peaceful, but just as it ended at about 5pm, scuffles broke out in the streets with the police using pepper spray and batons as protesters threw umbrellas and bottles at them.
The situation worsened, with some protesters and residents parked upstairs in Sha Tin Centre and Lucky Plaza throwing rubbish at the officers who were on the ground floor.
Tensions peaked at about 9.30pm when officers in riot gear entered New Town Plaza mall and tried to disperse the crowd that was still milling about there, resulting in chaos.
Opposition lawmakers and district councillors have slammed the police for their strategy, asking why they had initially blocked protesters from heading to the MTR station that is linked to the mall.
They said this would have served the purpose of dispersing the crowd, instead, riot police moved in on protesters who were trying to move towards the station and triggered the chaos.
Mr Lo responded: “When there were people breaking the law, should the police really just allow them to do so?”
Separately, Mrs Lam also dismissed a Financial Times report that she had offered to resign several times in recent weeks but was told by Beijing to stay and clean up the mess over the extradition Bill.
Pressure has been mounting on Mrs Lam to quit for her role in wanting to push through the controversial extradition Bill that would allow suspects to be sent from Hong Kong to other jurisdictions for trial, including the mainland where Hong Kongers fear they will not receive a fair trial.