Hong Kong protest: Extradition bill debate postponed as crowds block roads

HONG KONG, June 12 (NNN-KYODO) – Tens of thousands of protesters occupied major roads near Hong Kong’s legislature building on Wednesday, prompting lawmakers to postpone debating a controversial bill that would allow the extradition of criminal suspects to mainland China for the first time.

Legislative Council President Andrew Leung delayed a legislative session that was scheduled to start late Wednesday morning, during which the bill was to be debated. The meeting will be suspended until a later time to be determined, according to Hong Kong media.

Pro-democracy activists had urged people to surround the building from Wednesday, with the council president indicating the bill may be put to a vote on June 20.

More than one million people, by some estimates, turned out on Sunday for one of the largest mass protests seen since the former British colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997.

Critics fear the legislation could erode Hong Kong’s judicial independence and let China target political activists, as well as criminals.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam has nonetheless vowed her government will proceed to get the bill passed as quickly as possible.

With a second reading of the bill scheduled in the legislature on Wednesday, a number of businesses had announced they would close to let their workers protest, while students reportedly planned to boycott classes.

Police have deployed 5,000 officers around the legislature since Tuesday night, but on Wednesday morning, tens of thousands of people, many of them young and clad in black, stormed and occupied the major roads north and south of the Hong Kong government complex, including the legislature. They later surrounded the legislature building.

At one point, police used tear gas on some protesters occupying a road, according to local media.

The scene was reminiscent of the 2014 Umbrella Movement in which protesters occupied Hong Kong’s major thoroughfares in a bid to force Beijing to abandon its plan to preselect candidates for the territory’s leadership elections.

A 21-year-old male university student who participated in Wednesday’s protest said that even though he does not favor violence, he is firmly resolved to prevent the bill from passing, given Sunday’s mass march did little to change the government’s stance.

Hong Kong has established extradition agreements with some 20 countries since the 1997 handover. The proposed amendment to the Fugitive Offenders Ordinance and the Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Ordinance would allow the return of those accused of crimes to jurisdictions with which it has no extradition deal, such as mainland China and Taiwan.

The government has claimed the amendment is urgently needed due to a Taiwan murder case in which the prime suspect returned to Hong Kong.

But opponents of the bill say the legislation would erode Hong Kong’s judicial independence, which is guaranteed by China under its “one country, two systems” framework.

The bill has also raised concerns among dozens of countries, including Britain and the United States, as foreign citizens living in or visiting Hong Kong would also be put at risk of extradition.

The government has, however, made some concessions, such as cutting extraditable crimes from 46 to 37 categories, and applying the bill only to crimes punishable by seven or more years in prison, up from three years.