HONG KONG (Reuters) - Hong Kong protesters have managed to pull off an unlikely victory, forcing the city’s Beijing-appointed leader to suspend an extradition bill that would have allowed individuals to be sent to China for trial.
But the victory has come at an uncertain cost for 24 people arrested during the largely peaceful demonstrations, with the government saying those at the frontline, charging at police with umbrellas for instance, would be shown no clemency.
Thirty-two were arrested in total and eight cases were dropped, police said. They did not give details of the charges.
The arrests have further enraged many protesters who are demanding the government drop the cases and stop referring to the protests as a riot, which could lead to heavier jail terms.
The former British colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” formula, which guaranteed its freedoms, including freedom to protest and an independent legal system, which many say are being slowly eroded by Communist Party rulers in Beijing.
Demonstrators on Friday focussed much of their anger on police as they surrounded their headquarters.
“Our kids are beaten by police, by tear gas and rubber bullets. Stop shooting our children,” some shouted.
In a departure from Hong Kong’s 2014 pro-democracy “Occupy” protests, which gridlocked parts of the city for 79 days, these protesters managed to mobilise several million people on to the streets thanks in part to social media and encrypted messaging apps like Telegram.
Unlike Whatsapp, which has limits on group size, Telegram allowed the instant formation of vast communities of resistance, marshalled by anonymous administrators.
But police were watching.
Ivan Ip, a 22-year-old student and one of the administrators of a Telegram group with more than 30,000 users, was arrested on public nuisance charges.
Police raided his home, he said, before a protest that saw riot police fire 150 rounds of tear gas and rubber bullets.
Police confirmed to Reuters that they arrested a 22-year-old man after an investigation by the Cyber Security and Technology Crime Bureau, without giving details.
Ip said he had only been disseminating information shared by anonymous users and didn’t participate in any protest.
Police forced him to reveal his password to unlock his phone, downloaded data and asked him questions about how the Telegram group functions, Ip said.
Police did not respond to a request for comment.
“Police do not have the right to force people to give the password for them. There’s a precedent in high court that states very clearly that there’s no need to give passwords to the police,” said solicitor Ng Gene Bond.
Telegram, banned in Russia and mainland China, is one of the most targeted encrypted apps by Chinese censors, according to industry experts.
Telegram’s chief executive, Pavel Durov, said its service experienced a “state actor-sized” cyber-attack as the protests in Hong Kong escalated on June 12.
He declined to elaborate when contacted by Reuters.
Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam apologised for the turmoil caused by the planned extradition legislation and said she had heard the people “loud and clear”.
But protester Jason Chan, charged with unlawful assembly and now on bail, said a government apology was not enough.
“If most citizens are peaceful protesters, why is such kind of force being used against them?”
Additional reporting by Cate Cadell in Beijing and Vimvam Tong in Hong Kong; Editing by James Pomfret and Nick Macfie