The organisers of Sunday’s extradition bill march have lost their appeal against the police’s decision to shorten the protest route, after the force expressed concerns over public safety amid the escalating violence of recent demonstrations.
On Saturday, an independent appeal board ruled against the Civil Human Rights Front’s bid to overturn the move to end the route at Southorn Playground in Wan Chai. Organisers had initially wanted to march from Victoria Park in Causeway Bay to the Court of Final Appeal in Central.
The shorter route, which still begins at the park, prevents protesters from passing Police Headquarters in Wan Chai and the government head office and legislature in Admiralty. Both complexes have previously been besieged or damaged by protesters.
But the Appeal Board on Public Meetings and Processions upheld the group’s request to finish the march, which begins at 3pm, at 23.59pm, dismissing the force’s suggestion it end by 9pm.
The board’s chairman, Dr Pang Kin-kee, said it had considered public order and the protection of others’ rights and freedoms before reaching a unanimous decision.
Jimmy Sham Tsz-kit, the Front’s convenor, complained after the ruling that it would be hard to disperse marchers in Wan Chai, given the annual book fair is being held at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre in the same district.
He said they would ask protesters to leave as requested, but it was up to police to point out the exit routes.
“If the crowd management is out of control during the march on Sunday, police and the appeal board should bear all responsibilities,” he said.
He added a group of no more than 30 people planned to carry a banner to their intended end point in Central.
But during the hearing, Jim Ng Lok-chun, senior superintendent for operations on Hong Kong Island region, said changing the end point to Wan Chai was necessary.
He cited the fact that government buildings and police headquarters had been attacked in the protests in the past month, and noted the escalating level of violence in recent demonstrators.
“We are not afraid of marchers entering [the risky spots],” he said. “We are afraid some radical people might be already at those sites, and the peaceful protesters could enter there.”
Chief superintendent John Tse Chun-chung, from Police Public Relations Bureau, said officers noticed internet users had advocated the use of weapons during the rally, and to march from the approved routes.
The foiling of the city’s largest-ever bomb plot on the eve of march had deepened their concerns, Tse added, saying the change of the route was not a suppression and was needed to minimise the risks to public safety.
“Speaking from our experience from the last few weeks, protesters had gone from shouting slogans to blocking roads, and some even damaged public properties and shops. They attacked citizens and officers,” he said at a press conference after the decision was announced.
“Protesters had lowered the threshold [of a peaceful protest] and are apparently poles apart from their original urge to pursuit justice. As a consequence, we are concerned about the way the possession will be conducted on Sunday.”
The force also said it did not see the need to suspend the book fair, and would help protesters leave the district.
Authorities have increased security around government and police headquarters, which were locked down and barricaded by two-metre-high water barriers to head off trouble ahead of Sunday’s protest, which organisers are expecting 50,000 people to attend.
The arrangements, which have included the mobilising of nearly 4,000 police officers, were to “prepare for the worst”, said government sources. They stressed that the force’s management considered the safety of frontline officers to be a top priority as they looked to avoid a repeat of the bloody clashes with protesters last week, when 13 policemen were among the 28 casualties.
Tse said the water-filled barriers were intended to act as a buffer between police and protesters to minimise clashes.
Meanwhile, the Hong Kong Jockey Club has decided to temporarily close four off-course betting branches in Wan Chai and Central on Sunday as a result of the planned protest.