Thousands throng Hong Kong’s Chater Garden

Protestors light their torches during a peaceful rally in central Hong Kong's business district, Monday, Oct. 14, 2019. The protests that started in June over a now-shelved extradition bill have since snowballed into an anti-China campaign amid anger over what many view as Beijing's interference in Hong Kong's autonomy that was granted when the former British colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

HONG KONG (The Straits Times/ANN) — Tens of thousands of pro-democracy protesters gathered at Hong Kong’s Chater Garden in Central district near government headquarters on Monday for the first approved rally since a face mask ban came into effect on Oct 5.

The rally, which came a day after an improvised explosive device was detonated during unrest,  was called in support of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, a proposed US legislation aimed at reviewing the territory’s special trading status and potentially sanctioning some Chinese officials.

Protesters urged Washington to pass the bill that would sanction officials who undermined people’s rights in the territory. The Bill passed through the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the House Foreign Affairs Committee late last month.

Many of the rally goers, who were not wearing masks but donning black tops and in office wear, began chanting slogans like “It’s my right to wear a mask” and “fan gong” or anti-communism in Cantonese.

Riot police were on standby about an hour before the rally ended at 9.30pm. They started to clear the streets at around 9pm while hundreds of plain clothes protesters loitered in Central, still occupying roads despite police warnings to disperse.

In a statement, the Hong Kong government expressed “regret” over the assembly at Chater Garden.

The spokesman said: “Since the return to the Motherland, the Hong Kong government has been exercising ‘Hong Kong people administering Hong Kong’ and a high degree of autonomy in strict accordance with the Basic Law of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China. The ‘one country, two systems’ principle has been fully and successfully implemented. Human rights and freedoms in Hong Kong are fully protected by the Basic Law, the Hong Kong Bill of Rights Ordinance and other legislation.”

He added that foreign legislatures should not interfere in any form in the internal affairs of the city.

Among those who flouted the ban on the wearing of face masks was Ms Daisy Chan, 28, a clerk who worked in the New Territories. She said she had specially made her way down to Central to show her support.

Asked if the face mask ban would prompt her to the frontline of the protests, many of which have turned violent, Ms Chan said: “I didn’t have the courage so I won’t go to the frontlines but I will come out in my capacity as a peaceful protester, even if I’ve to wear a mask I will also turn up.”

Police said that a remote-controlled improvised explosive device, similar to those used in terrorist attacks in foreign countries, was detonated at Nathan Road on Sunday. They believe the device was aimed at officers.

At a press conference, deputy police commissioner Tang Ping Keung said they believed the device, planted at the junction of Nathan Road and Fife Street in Mong Kok, was detonated via a mobile phone.

A police car had arrived at the scene to clear the road, which was barricaded by protesters, but once an officer got out of the vehicle, the device exploded some 10 to 15m away in a flowerbed.

The police on Monday disclosed that more than 200 people were arrested over three days from Friday, bringing  the total number arrested since June to 2,600 or so.

In a separate protest, some hundred medical staff in face masks staged a sit-in in Tseung Kwan O Hospital to show support for a doctor who was arrested at a mall in the same district as the hospital on Sunday.

RTHK quoted one of those taking part in the sit-in as saying the doctor was detained after taking pictures of police officers raiding the mall and making arrests. “Some videos show that our colleague was just taking photos from a distance.

He was arrested without having attacked anyone. We want to raise everyone’s attention to the indiscriminate arrests by police,” the nurse whose surname was Cheung said.

Another participant of the sit-in said the doctor suffered injuries to his head, hands and legs when he was arrested and was being treated in hospital, RTHK reported. The local broadcast station said in a separate report that officers had been given the green light to carry pepper spray when they are off-duty and if they were trained to use it.

Citing sources, the broadcaster said the procedure would apply from Tuesday, following a weekend of increased violence against the police which saw one officer slashed in the neck with a penknife.

Last month, officers were told they could bring batons back with them after duty.

Separately, about two dozen elderly demonstrators ended their two-day sit-in protest against police brutality outside the police headquarters in Wan Chai.

Hong Kong has been battered by four months of  unrest which was triggered initially by opposition to a now-abandoned extradition Bill. That has now widened into a pro-democracy movement and agitation against social inequality in the city.