HONG KONG (Reuters) - Secondary school students and retirees joined forces to protest in Hong Kong on Saturday, the first of several weekend rallies planned across the city, as pro-democracy activists vowed to battle what they say are police brutality and unlawful arrests.
A top Hong Kong official said the government was looking into setting up an independent committee to review the handling of the crisis, in which demonstrations have become increasingly violent since they began more than five months ago.
Hong Kong has seen relative calm since local elections last week delivered an overwhelming victory to pro-democracy candidates. Still, activists appear keen to maintain the momentum of their movement.
“I came out for the peaceful protest in June when there was more than one million people, but the government did not listen to our demands,” said a 71-year-old woman in Hong Kong’s Central district who only gave her name as Ponn.
She brought her own plastic stool to join a cross-generational protest of a few hundred people at the city’s Chater Garden. Elderly Hong Kongers, some with visors and canes, stood not far from young, black-clad protesters. All listened to pro-democracy speakers in a gathering marked by music and a festive mood.
“I have seen so much police brutality and unlawful arrests. This is not the Hong Kong I know. I came today because I want the government to know that we are not happy with what they have done to our generation,” said Ponn, who attended with her daughter and son-in-law.
Demonstrators are angered by what they see as Chinese interference in freedoms promised when Britain returned Hong Kong to Beijing in 1997.
Although the protests were sparked by an extradition bill that was later scrapped, demonstrators have been making “five demands” that include universal suffrage in choosing the city’s leader and an independent inquiry into police use of force.
China denies interfering and says it is committed to the “one country, two systems” formula put in place in the Asian financial hub in 1997. It has blamed foreign forces for fomenting unrest.
People gathered on Saturday to pay their respects at a vigil outside the Prince Edward rail station where some residents believe that protesters were killed by police three months ago. Police have denied that account.
Some in the crowd shouted “revenge” and “five demands”.
“They need to release the full CCTV footage of that night,” said D. Wong, a 19-year-old protester holding up his laptop that was playing a film about perceived police brutality.
In the Kowloon Bay area, a few hundred protesters formed a line and stood side by side, holding hands.
On Saturday, citing authorities, the Communist party newspaper of the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou said police had arrested a Belize citizen for allegedly colluding with people in the United States to meddle in Hong Kong affairs.
The Hong Kong city government is looking into setting up an independent committee to review the handling of the crisis, Matthew Cheung, Chief Secretary for Administration, told reporters when asked about an independent review committee.
Some critics on social media have said that such a committee would fall short of the independent investigation they have been demanding.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, also called for an investigation into allegations of excessive police force.
“I appeal the government to take important confidence-building measures, including a proper independent and impartial judge-led investigation into reports of excessive use of force by the police,” Bachelet wrote in an opinion piece in the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post newspaper on Saturday.
At Saturday’s first rally, the crowd in the park rose at one point to sing “Glory to Hong Kong”, which has become the unofficial anthem of protests. Many of them put their hands in the air with five fingers outstretched, a symbol of the pro-democracy movement.
“It has been quiet after the district elections and that is unexpected,” senior citizen protester Ponn’s 26-year-old daughter told Reuters. “We should not stop there, I came today because we have to keep fighting.”
Some of the young protesters waved American flags, a sign of appreciation after U.S. President Donald Trump this week signed into law bills that back the protesters and threaten China with possible sanctions on human rights.
A 70-year-old retiree in a blue aviator sunglasses and a grey tracksuit, who gave his name as Ko, said seniors could offer guidance to the younger protesters.
“Starting from day one I have been involved in this movement and there is no reason to stop now,” said Ko.
“Today is a cross-age group meeting and there are a lot of middle school students ... We are here to give them advice and moral support. I think they need it.”
Reporting by Kate O'Donnell-Lamb, Felix Tam and Leah Millis; Additional reporting by Yawen Chen in Beijing; Writing by David Dolan; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Kenneth Maxwell/Mark Heinrich