HONG KONG (Reuters) - Small groups of Hong Kong pro-democracy demonstrators gathered on Tuesday to mark the first anniversary of an attack in a train station by an armed crowd wearing white shirts, and demanded justice for victims of the violence and broader freedoms.
The Yuen Long attack, and the police’s apparent failure to prevent it, exacerbated tensions during protests last year, plunging the global financial hub into its deepest crisis since Hong Kong returned from British to Chinese rule in 1997.
Scattered individuals around the Yoho mall and Yuen Long train station chanted slogans including “Hong Kong independence, the only way out”. An elderly lady pasted small “HK Add Oil” stickers on to walls.
Hundreds of riot police cordoned off areas and urged people not to gather because of coronavirus social distancing restrictions.
Groups of youngsters roaming the malls cursed police from a distance and chanted: “Liberate Hong Kong. Revolution of our Times”, a slogan the government has warned might violate new national security laws.
Police fired pepper spray during at least one skirmish.
Tuesday’s protest followed the imposition of the new security laws by Beijing that have provoked international criticism and raised fears for the city’s liberties and autonomy under the so-called “one country, two systems” formula.
Some protesters held blank sheets of paper to oppose the “evil” law they say has criminalised free speech.
“I’ve had lots of feelings of disappointment in these past few weeks,” said Lok, an 18-year-old student dressed in a black shirt and shorts, typical of protesters, conceding the turnout was less than he had hoped. “But Hong Kong people should still keep the revolutionary spirit, and fight for their freedoms.”
The police said in a statement that five people had been arrested in Yuen Long, including a 52-year-old man suspected of breaching the national security law and pro-democracy lawmaker Ted Hui.
Beijing says the law, which punishes what China broadly defines as secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces, was needed to plug national security loopholes left by the city’s failure to pass such legislation on its own. Hong Kong authorities say it will help bring stability.
On July 21 last year, 45 people were injured after more than 100 men in white swarmed the train station.
Police have been criticised for not responding quickly enough to calls for help, and for not immediately arresting any alleged culprits at the scene.
A recent documentary by public broadcaster RTHK showed the police had been aware of the white-shirted crowd gathering hours before the attack. Police later acknowledged plainclothes officers were present, but said investigations are continuing and further arrests were likely to be made.
Protesters are still demanding justice. So far, 37 people have been arrested, with seven charged with participating in riots and conspiracy to injure others with intent.
In May, an Independent Police Complaints Council report into the year-long protests found no evidence of collusion but identified deficiencies in police deployment during the incident.
Reporting by Jessie Pang and James Pomfret; Writing by Scott Murdoch, Editing by Timothy Heritage and Alison Williams