Hong Kong police to enter university as hunt for protesters turns up empty

By Jessie Pang and Twinnie Siu

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong police said they would enter Polytechnic University on Thursday, bringing their near two-week siege of the campus to an end, after final searches for any pro-democracy protesters still hiding turned up empty.

For a second day on Wednesday security teams from the university scoured the maze of buildings at the campus, a focal point in recent weeks of the citywide protests that first erupted in June, but no one was found.

“As the school has completed the search, the police security team will enter Polytechnic University tomorrow, as we need to process dangerous items and collect evidence,” District Commander Ho Yun-sing told reporters.

Any remaining protesters would be given medical treatment, he said.

The red-brick university on Kowloon peninsula was turned into a battleground in mid-November, when protesters barricaded themselves inside and clashed with riot police in a hail of petrol bombs, water cannon and tear gas. About 1,100 people were arrested last week, some while trying to escape.

Riot police sealed off the campus, setting up high plastic barricades and a fence on the perimeter.

The number of protesters has dwindled dramatically, with some managing to flee and others brought out. A lone woman found on Tuesday was “physically weak and emotionally unstable”, according to a statement from the university.

The university on Wednesday asked government departments for help removing “dangerous materials” from the site, which is littered with rotting waste and detritus of the siege, urging authorities to take a “humane” approach.

The city’s largest pro-establishment party, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, urged authorities to send medics to the site to take any remaining protesters to hospital.

LULL IN CLASHES

The Polytechnic University campus was the last of five that protesters had occupied to use as bases from which to disrupt the city, blocking the nearby Cross-Harbour Tunnel linking Kowloon to Hong Kong Island and other arteries.

Demonstrators are angry at what they see as Beijing’s meddling in the freedoms promised to the former British colony when it returned to Chinese rule in 1997.

China denies interfering and says it is committed to the “one country, two systems” formula put in place at that time.

The protesters had blocked the tunnel’s mouth, smashed toll booths, lit fires and cemented bricks to the road, but it was reopened early on Wednesday, and Hong Kong television showed a steady flow of vehicles passing through.

Hong Kong authorities hope that a lull in clashes over the weekend during local elections, where pro-democracy candidates scored a landslide victory, can translate into more calm after nearly six months of turmoil.

Hundreds of people are facing potential jail time in connection with the unrest.

Secretary for Security John Lee said on Wednesday police had arrested more than 5,800 people since June, the numbers increasing exponentially in October and November, and had charged 923.

Smaller scale protests continued on Wednesday, as crowds in the central business district took to the streets around noon.

‘THANKSGIVING PROTEST’

Reuters also reported that China’s leaders had set up a crisis command center in the Chinese tech hub of Shenzhen, just across the border from Hong Kong, to deal with protests that have become the biggest populist challenge since China’s leader Xi Jinping came to power in 2012.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Office in Hong Kong called the report “false”, without elaborating, in a statement posted on its website Tuesday. “No matter how the situation in Hong Kong changes, the Chinese government’s determination to safeguard national sovereignty, security, and development interests is unwavering,” it said.

Despite the euphoria among protesters over the electoral victory, in which democracy advocates swept around 86 percent of the 452 district council seats, fresh demonstrations were planned for the weekend, including a march to protest against the use of tear gas on “children”.

A “Thanksgiving” protest, in appreciation of the U.S Congress passing legislation supporting protesters, is scheduled for Thursday, the date of the U.S. holiday.

The city-wide elections drew a record turnout and were seen as a vote of no-confidence in Hong Kong’s Beijing-backed leader, Carrie Lam, over her handling of the financial hub’s worst crisis in decades.

One Hong Kong newspaper, Sing Pao, published a front-page spread for the second successive day calling for Lam’s resignation. “Hong Kong people had enough, Carrie Lam quit,” it read.

(Reporting by Jessie Pang, Clare Jim, Noah Sin and James Pomfret; Writing by Anne Marie Roantree and Poppy McPherson; Editing by Paul Tait, Simon Cameron-Moore and Alex Richardson)

Pakistan court convicts 31 over campus lynching of student accused of blasphemy

Policemen keep guard near the central prison where a court convicted 31people over the campus lynching of a university student last year who was falsely accused of blasphemy, and sentenced one of them to death, in Haripur, Pakistan February 7, 2018.

By Jibran Ahmed

PESHAWAR, Pakistan (Reuters) – A Pakistani court on Wednesday convicted 31 people over the campus lynching of a university student who was falsely accused of blasphemy, and sentenced one of them to death, a defense lawyer said.

The killing of student Mashal Khan, 23, last year sparked an outcry and raised fresh questions about the misuse of a harsh blasphemy law, which stipulates the death sentence for insulting Islam or the Prophet Muhammad.

Barrister Ameerullah Chamkani told Reuters one of the 31 accused had been sentenced to death, five were jailed for life and the other 25 were jailed for four years.

The court acquitted 26 others out of a total of 57 people indicted by a court late last year.

Chamkani said one of the convicts, Imran Ali, had been sentenced to death because he had shot Mashal three times.

The accused were students, teachers and some officials of Abdul Wali Khan University named after a secular political leader in northwest Pakistan.

They all pleaded not guilty in the trial conducted at a high-security prison due to threats to defense lawyers and government prosecutors, Chamkani said.

Lawyers for those convicted were not available for comment.

Khan, a Muslim, was known as an intellectually curious student who liked to debate controversial social, political and religious issues.

He was attacked and killed by a mob on the campus on April 13 after a dormitory debate about religion.

Blasphemy is a highly sensitive issue in Pakistan, where insulting Islam’s prophet is punishable by death, though no executions have been carried out for blasphemy.

Even a rumor of blasphemy can spark mob violence and there have been cases of people misusing the law to settle scores.

At least 67 people have been killed over unproven blasphemy allegations since 1990, according to human rights groups.

‘CONTINUE MY STRUGGLE’

In 2011, a bodyguard assassinated the liberal governor of Punjab province, Salman Taseer, after he called for the blasphemy laws to be reformed.

His killer, Mumtaz Qadri, who was executed last year, has been hailed as a martyr by religious hardliners.

A political party founded in Qadri’s honor has made blasphemy its central issue in the run-up to a general election later this year.

The party last year forced the government to retract within a day a change in electoral laws that it deemed blasphemous.

Party supporters also blocked the main road into Islamabad for nearly three weeks last year in a protest against a law minister they accused of blasphemy.

The government eventually gave in, agreeing to an army-brokered deal that included the resignation of the minister.

Khan’s father, Iqbal Khan, expressed satisfaction about the verdicts.

“I appreciate the court decision,” he told reporters in London in remarks broadcast live by Pakistan’s Geo TV.

Asked about the acquittals, the father said: “I will continue my struggle.”

Khan is visiting London to talk at various forums about his son’s case and the blasphemy law.

Khan’s family say they have been threatened since his death and his two sisters have had to drop out of school. Police guard his grave.

(Writing by Asif Shahzad; Editing by Robert Birsel)