Thousands of Hong Kong civil servants defy government to join protests

Civil servants attend a rally to support the anti-extradition bill protest in Hong Kong, China August 2, 2019. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

By Felix Tam and Greg Torode

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Thousands of civil servants joined in the anti-government protests in Hong Kong on Friday for the first time since they started two months ago, defying a warning from the authorities to remain politically neutral.

Protests against a proposed bill that would allow people to be extradited to stand trial in mainland China have grown increasingly violent, with police accused of excessive use of force and failing to protect protesters from suspected gang attacks.

Chanting encouragement, crowds turned out to support the civil servants at their rally on Friday evening which halted traffic on major roads in the heart of the city’s business district.

“I think the government should respond to the demands, instead of pushing the police to the frontline as a shield,” said Kathy Yip, a 26-year-old government worker.

The rally on Friday came after an open letter penned anonymously and published on Facebook set out a series of demands to the Hong Kong government by a group which said it represented civil servants.

“At present the people of Hong Kong are already on the verge of collapse,” the group wrote in the letter, saying it was “a pity that we have seen extreme oppression.”

The group also listed five demands: complete withdrawal of the extradition bill; a halt to descriptions of the protests as ‘rioting’; a waiver of charges against those arrested; an independent inquiry and resumption of political reform.

The protests against a now suspended extradition bill have widened to demand greater democracy and the resignation of Hong Kong’s leader Carrie Lam, and have become one of the gravest populist challenges to Communist Party rulers in Beijing.

On Thursday the government said Hong Kong’s 180,000 civil servants must remain politically neutral as the city braced for another wave of protests over the weekend and a mass strike on Monday across sectors such as transport, schools and corporates.

“At this difficult moment, government colleagues have to stay united and work together to uphold the core values of the civil service,” the government said in a statement.

Protest organizers said over 40,000 people participated in Friday’s rally, while the police put the number at 13,000.

Police said they had arrested eight people, including a leading pro-independence leader, after seizing weapons and suspected bomb-making material in a raid.

Under Chinese rule, Hong Kong has been allowed to retain extensive freedoms, such as an independent judiciary, but many residents see the extradition bill as the latest step in a relentless march toward mainland control. Anson Chan, former chief secretary, said the rally was spontaneous and civil servants enjoyed the right to assembly and it could not be said to impair political neutrality.

Many civil servants, however, were apprehensive about identifying themselves, with many speaking anonymously or asking for only their first name to be used.

MORE PROTESTS PLANNED

Hundreds of medical workers also demonstrated on Friday to protest against the government’s handling of the situation. Large-scale protests are planned for the weekend in Mong Kok, Tseung Kwan O and Western districts.

In a warning to protesters, China’s People’s Liberation Army in Hong Kong on Wednesday released a video of “anti-riot” exercises and its top brass warned violence was “absolutely impermissible”.

The PLA has remained in barracks since protests started in April, leaving Hong Kong’s police force to deal with protests.

U.S. President Donald Trump has described protests in Hong Kong as “riots” that China will have to deal with itself..

Police said seven men and a woman, aged between 24 and 31, were arrested on Friday after a raid on a building in the New Territories district of Sha Tin, where police seized weapons and suspected petrol bombs. Making or possessing explosives illegally can carry a sentence of up to 14 years in jail.

The police may arrest more people as the investigations unfold, police officer Li Kwai Wah said, adding, “Recently we are very worried about the escalating violence.”

Andy Chan, a founder of the pro-independence Hong Kong National Party that was banned last September, was among those arrested. His arrest prompted about 100 protesters to surround a police station to demand his release, television footage showed.

On Friday night, crowds of protesters surrounded a police station where Chan was being held, drawing out riot police to the street outside.

On Wednesday, 44 people were charged in a Hong Kong court with rioting over a recent protest near Beijing’s main representative office in the heart of the city.

The escalating protests, which have shut government offices, blocked roads and disrupted business, is taking a toll of the city’s economy and scaring off tourists.

Cheng aged 39, who was speaking behind a large black mask, said the recent triad attack on protesters and slow police response had angered him and his civil service peers.

Of the five protester demands, he said the need for an independent inquiry into the actions of the police was vital.

“I hope to stay in the civil service for a long time. But we have to act now.”

(Reporting by James Pomfret, Twinnie Siu, Anne Marie Roantree, Felix Tam, Vimvam Tong and Donny Kwok; Writing by Farah Master; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)

Black-clad, anti-extradition protesters singing “Hallelujah to the Lord” flood streets of Hong Kong

Protesters gather outside police headquarters in Hong Kong, China June 21, 2019. REUTERS/Ann Wang

By Jessie Pang and Clare Jim

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Thousands of demonstrators blockaded police headquarters on Friday as Asia’s leading financial center braced itself for a third weekend of mass protests against an extradition bill that has plunged the Chinese-ruled city into crisis.

Groups of mostly students wearing hard hats, goggles and face masks set up roadblocks and trapped vehicles in a generally peaceful protest to demand that leader Carrie Lam, who promoted and then postponed the bill, scrap it altogether.

“Having people here is giving pressure to the government that we don’t agree with your extradition plans,” said student Edison Ng, who was protesting in sweltering heat of about 32 degrees Celsius (90F).

“It is not clear how long we will stay… To go or not to go, (the) people will decide,” he added.

The protests, which pose the greatest popular challenge to Chinese President Xi Jinping since he took power in 2012, once again forced the temporary closure of Hong Kong government offices over security concerns.

Roads that would normally be jammed with traffic near the heart of the former British colony were empty, with demonstrators reinforcing roadblocks with metal barriers.

“Never surrender,” echoed through the streets as the protesters chanted near police headquarters and called on police chief Stephen Lo to step down.

Riot police armed with helmets and shields appeared from the balcony of police headquarters but withdrew back inside after heavy chanting from the crowd. Police warned activists through loud hailers not to charge.

Thousands remained outside government buildings on Friday night, with the majority sitting peacefully and spraying each other with water to keep cool. Nearby, a large group sang “Sing Hallelujah to the Lord”, which has emerged as the unlikely anthem of the protests.

Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997, since when it has been governed under a “one country, two systems” formula that allows freedoms not enjoyed in mainland China, including a much-cherished independent judiciary.

Millions of people, fearing further erosion of those freedoms, have clogged the streets of the Asian financial center this month to rally against the bill, which would allow people to be extradited to the mainland to face trial in courts controlled by the Communist Party.

It triggered the most violent protests in decades when police fired rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse the crowds. Beijing’s squeeze sparked pro-democracy protests in 2014 that paralyzed parts of the city for 79 days.

Many accuse China of obstructing democratic reforms, interfering with elections and of being behind the disappearance of five Hong Kong-based booksellers, starting in 2015, who specialized in works critical of Chinese leaders.

Friday’s marchers demanded that the government drop all charges against those arrested in last week’s clashes, charge police with what they describe as violent action and stop referring to the protests as a riot.

A small group of demonstrators hurled eggs at police outside the headquarters to protest against police violence. Amnesty International in a statement on Friday that evidence of unlawful use of force by police during the June 12 protest was “irrefutable”.

The government in a statement late on Friday said the protests had caused much disruption and appealed to protesters to act peacefully and rationally. With regard to the bill, it said the government had put a stop to legislation on the matter.

“SINCERE AND HUMBLE ATTITUDE”

Opponents of the extradition bill fear the law could put them at the mercy of the mainland Chinese justice system which is plagued by torture, forced confessions and arbitrary detentions.

The turmoil has also raised questions over Lam’s ability to govern, two years after she was selected and pledged to “unite and move forward”.

Justice Secretary Teresa Cheng became the latest government minister to apologize over the bill.

“Regarding the controversies and disputes in society arising from the strife in the past few months, being a team member of the government, I offer my sincere apology to all people of Hong Kong,” Cheng wrote in her blog.

“We promise to adopt a most sincere and humble attitude to accept criticisms and make improvements in serving the public.”

While Lam admitted shortcomings over the bill and said she had heard the people “loud and clear”, she has rejected repeated calls to step down.

Concerns over the bill spread quickly, from democratic and human rights groups to the wider Hong Kong community, including pro-establishment business figures, some usually loath to contradict the government. Some Hong Kong tycoons have started moving personal wealth offshore.

Hong Kong’s Bar Association said in a statement that it was asking the government to withdraw the extradition bill and make a commitment that any legislation would not proceed without having a full and open consultation.

Protesters had gathered early on Friday outside government offices before marching toward police headquarters. One activist read a letter of support from a Taiwan student.

“Brave HKers, perhaps when faced with adversity, we are all fragile and small, but please do not give up defending everything that you love,” the protester read through a loud hailer to applause.

Beijing has never renounced the use of force to take over self-ruled Taiwan, which it regards as a recalcitrant, breakaway province. Many have waved Taiwan flags at recent demonstrations in Hong Kong, images certain to rile authorities in Beijing.

Taiwan, overwhelmingly opposed to a “one country, two systems” formula for itself, has voiced support for Hong Kong.

(Additional reporting by Jessie Pang, Vimvam Tong, Clare Jim, Anne Marie Roantree, Farah Master, Twinnie Siu, Sijia Jiang Felix Tam, Ryan Chang; Writing by Anne Marie Roantree and Farah Master; Editing by Clarence Fernandez; Nick Macfie and Toby Chopra)

Eight years after uprising, Egyptians say freedoms have eroded

FILE PHOTO: Anti-government protesters celebrate next to soldiers inside Tahrir Square after the announcement of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's resignation in Cairo February 11, 2011. REUTERS/Asmaa Waguih/File Photo

By Mohamed Abdellah and Mahmoud Mourad

CAIRO (Reuters) – Everyday at sunset, Ahmed Maher, one of Egypt’s best known activists, says good night to his family and heads to a Cairo police station to spend the night under police watch.

While what he describes as ‘half an imprisonment’ has disrupted his family life, career, education and freedoms, Maher considers himself luckier than other activists of the 2011 uprising that ended autocratic president Hosni Mubarak’s 30 years in power.

Like many young Egyptians who camped out for days at Cairo’s Tahrir Square in 2011, the 38-year-old Nobel Peace Prize nominee expected Mubarak’s downfall to pave the way for more freedoms to allow the country to flourish.

Instead, Maher and other activists say things have gotten worse.

“No one imagined that the situation would be this bad,” Maher, an engineer who is also studying for a degree in political science, told Reuters. “Even the right to gather in a crowd or to express an opinion is not available.”

President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who came to power determined to crush the Muslim Brotherhood after a year in office that saw the economy suffer, has also targeted secular activists, including many prominent figures of the January 25 uprising.

Many have fled the country, others are in prison while a third group have been cowed into silence.

Maher, freed from a three-year-prison sentence in early 2017 for breaking anti-protest laws, immediately began a three-year-probation period under which he must spend the night, from 6 p.m. until 6 a.m., at a police station.

Sisi supporters, who now celebrate the anniversary of the June 30, 2013 uprising that toppled Islamist President Mohamed Mursi, argue tough action was needed to rescue the economy and get rid of Islamists they accused of trying to take steps to retain power.

Egypt’s economy has begun to turn around since Sisi came to office in 2014, but reforms adopted under a 2016 IMF loan that included devaluing the Egyptian pound and a gradual lifting of state fuel subsidies have also deepened poverty in Egypt.

WORST CRACKDOWN IN MODERN HISTORY

Rights activists say that Sisi has presided over the worst crackdown on freedoms in Egypt’s modern history.

Thousands of activists, most of them Islamists but also includes dozens of liberals and leftists, have been jailed under strict regulations imposed since 2013.

Rights activists say that intellectuals, government critics and human rights campaigners have been rounded up on charges of belonging to “terrorist organizations” or publishing false news or disturbing public order.

They include Wael Abbas, an award-winning journalist, Hazem Abdelazim, a well-known Sisi supporter turned critic, and Alaa Abdel Fattah, a prominent blogger jailed for five years.

Ahmed Douma, another figurehead of the 2011 uprising, was sentenced to 15 years in jail earlier this month after he was convicted of rioting and attacking security forces in 2011.

“Every time a human being is tortured, disappeared, extra-judicially killed, executed or arbitrarily arrested, Egypt’s authorities convey a clear message to their people, the change they demanded will not come,” EuroMed Rights, a Copenhagen-based network seeking to bolster ties between NGOs on both sides of the Mediterranean, said in a statement.

Egypt, which denies holding political prisoners, rejects abuse allegations. But Sisi’s admirers say firmness has been necessary to end years of lawlessness and militants behind attacks that have killed hundreds.

“The whole world had thought that the youths of the revolution would play a role in running the country, like in any country that looks for qualified youths would,” said Maher, who founded the April 6 Movement, a grassroots group founded in 2008 that had campaigned against Mubarak’s rule. “Sadly, there is a big hostility towards the youths,” he added.

Last September, 17 U.N. human rights experts criticized Egypt for its use of anti-terrorism laws to detain activists fighting for women’s rights and against graft, torture and extra-judicial killings.

Israa Abdel Fattah, another member of the April 6 Movement, said that Egypt was worse off now than it was before the January 25 uprising. “Egypt can change and everything will be good if it possessed one thing, and that’s justice,” said Abdel Fattah, who like many other activists is barred from traveling abroad.

Activists say the only positive result of the revolution, a two-term limit on presidential terms, could also soon be lost if Sisi supporters pursue plans to amend the constitution.

At a ceremony to mark Police Day, Sisi paid tribute to the January 25 uprising but stayed silent when a speaker asked him to agree to remain in office for two additional four-year terms.

Anwar al-Hawary, former editor of the privately-owned al-Masri al-Youm newspaper, said Sisi appears to favor staying in power beyond a second term, warning that any such move would be “illogical”.

“The country cannot cope with another uprising or a coup,” he said.

(Editing by Sami Aboudi, William Maclean)

Turkey’s Erdogan wins sweeping new powers after election victory

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan greets his supporters from the balcony of his ruling AK Party headquarters in Ankara, Turkey, early June 25, 2018. Kayhan Ozer/Presidential Palace/Handout via REUTERS

By Tuvan Gumrukcu and Nevzat Devranoglu

ANKARA (Reuters) – Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan won sweeping new executive powers on Monday after his victory in landmark elections that also saw his Islamist-rooted AK Party and its nationalist allies secure a majority in parliament.

Erdogan’s main rival, Muharrem Ince of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), conceded defeat but branded the elections “unjust” and said the presidential system that now takes effect was “very dangerous” because it would lead to one-man rule.

A leading European rights watchdog that sent observers to monitor the voting also said the opposition had faced “unequal conditions” and that limits on the freedom of media to cover the elections were further hindered by a continuing state of emergency imposed in Turkey after a failed 2016 coup.

Erdogan, 64, the most popular – yet divisive – leader in modern Turkish history, told jubilant, flag-waving supporters there would be no retreat from his drive to transform Turkey, a NATO member and, at least nominally, a candidate to join the European Union.

He is loved by millions of devoutly Muslim working class Turks for delivering years of stellar economic growth and overseeing the construction of roads, bridges, airports, hospitals and schools.

But his critics, including rights groups, accuse him of destroying the independence of the courts and press freedoms. A crackdown launched after the coup has seen 160,000 people detained, and the state of emergency allows Erdogan to bypass parliament with decrees. He says it will be lifted soon.

Erdogan and the AK Party claimed victory in Sunday’s presidential and parliamentary elections after defeating a revitalized opposition that had gained considerable momentum recently and looked capable of staging an upset.

“It is out of the question for us to turn back from where we’ve brought our country in terms of democracy and the economy,” Erdogan said on Sunday night.

His victory means he will remain president at least until 2023 – the centenary of the founding of the Turkish republic on the ashes of the Ottoman Empire by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Erdogan’s foes accuse him of dismantling Ataturk’s secular legacy by bringing religion back into public life.

Erdogan responds to such criticism by saying he is trying to modernize Turkey and improve religious freedoms.

With virtually all votes counted, Erdogan had 53 percent against Ince’s 31 percent, while in the parliamentary vote the AKP took 42.5 percent and its MHP nationalist allies secured 11 percent, outstripping expectations.

Turkish markets initially rallied on hopes of increased political stability – investors had feared deadlock between Erdogan and an opposition-controlled parliament – but then retreated amid concerns over future monetary policy.

“MAJOR DANGER”

The vote ushers in a powerful executive presidency backed by a narrow majority in a 2017 referendum. The office of prime minister will be abolished and Erdogan will be able to issue decrees to form and regulate ministries and remove civil servants, all without parliamentary approval.

“The new regime that takes effect from today is a major danger for Turkey… We have now fully adopted a regime of one-man rule,” Ince, a veteran CHP lawmaker, told a news conference.

The secularist CHP draws support broadly from Turkey’s urban, educated middle class. It won 23 percent in the new parliament and the pro-Kurdish HDP nearly 12 percent, above the 10 percent threshold needed to enter parliament.

The HDP’s presidential candidate, Selahattin Demirtas, campaigned from a prison cell, where he is detained on terrorism charges he denies. He faces 142 years in prison if convicted.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, a rights watchdog, said high voter turnout, at nearly 87 percent, demonstrated Turks’ commitment to democracy. But the OSCE also cited some irregularities and echoed opposition complaints about heavy media bias in favor of Erdogan and the AKP.

“The restrictions we have seen on fundamental freedoms (due to the state of emergency) have had an impact on these elections,” Ignacio Sanchez Amor, head of the OSCE observer mission, told a news conference in Ankara.

The MHP takes a hard line on the Kurds, making it less likely that Erdogan will soften his approach to security issues in mainly Kurdish southeast Turkey and neighboring Syria and Iraq, where Turkish forces are battling Kurdish militants.

The Turkish lira and stocks sagged after initial gains, and economists said the outlook was uncertain.

“Any rally could quickly go into reverse if President Erdogan uses his strengthened position to pursue looser fiscal and monetary policy, as we fear is likely,” said Jason Tuvey, senior emerging markets economist at Capital Economics.

The lira is down some 19 percent since January and investors fear Erdogan, a self-declared “enemy of interest rates”, may pressure the central bank to cut recently hiked borrowing costs to stimulate economic growth despite double-digit inflation.

Seeking to reassure investors, Erdogan’s chief economic adviser, Cemil Ertem, told Reuters the new government would focus on economic reforms and budget discipline. He added that the central bank’s independence was “fundamental”.

The EU’s executive Commission said it hoped Erdogan would “remain a committed partner for the European Union on major issues of common interest such as migration, security, regional stability and the fight against terrorism”.

Turkey’s years-long EU accession bid stalled some time ago amid disputes on a range of issues, including Ankara’s human rights record, especially since the post-coup crackdown.

Russian President Vladimir Putin called Erdogan to congratulate him but there were no reports of Western leaders doing so, underlining the chill in relations between Ankara and its traditional NATO allies.

(Reporting by Turkey bureau; Writing by Gareth Jones; Editing by Mark Heinrich)