Hong Kong protesters rally despite government climbdown

Protesters demand extradition bill be scrapped permanently a day after city government suspended it indefinitely.

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    Hong Kong, China - Thousands of Hong Kong residents are gathering on Sunday afternoon despite the city government's decision to suspend a controversial amendment to a law which, critics say, would see an erosion of the city's much vaunted autonomy.

    The planned march comes just a day after Hong Kong's Chief Executive Carrie Lam made a stunning reversal by shelving the extradition bill indefinitely, only days after vowing to push ahead with it.

    But the protesters want the controversial bill to be scrapped permanently and the city leader's resignation for pushing ahead with the law that has attracted one of the biggest protests in decades.

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    Former legislative councillor and activist Lee Cheuk Yan told journalists that the now-dormant law "can be revived by Carrie Lam at any time", adding that it was important to continue opposing the government on the issue, particularly after the violence and arrests of Wednesday.

    "We want the government to condemn this police violence. We don't want Hong Kong to be ruled by fear."

    Protest organiser Bonnie Leung said that even though Beijing could never admit to backing down in the face of the massive demonstrations, it can sense that Lam's government would cease to be an effective administration.

    "Today, when a lot of Hong Kong people come out, Beijing can (again) read this message."

    Crowds are gathering at the city's Victoria Park, the site of its annual Tiananmen Massacre vigil, and the jumping-off point for a similar protest a week ago, which organisers say attracted over a million people. Police put that count at 240,000.

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    Almost two hours before the march was scheduled to begin, hundreds of protesters, many wearing black, began to congregate on the park's concrete football pitches.

    An events and marketing professional, identified by his first name Keith, told Al Jazeera that he was not satisfied with Lam's decision to postpone the bill, and that he expected an even greater turnout than the march a week ago.

    The 32-year-old said he didn't expect the violence that marred Wednesday's protests to affect the numbers of marchers. “It may deter some people, but not many. This is too important.”

    Like many marchers who had convened early, he carried a small bunch of white flowers, which he said was a tribute to a protester who fell to his death outside a luxury mall in the business district of Admiralty on Saturday, shortly after Lam's announcement.

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    A demonstrator holds a bunch of flowers in tribute to a man who died protesting against the bill on Saturday [Euan McKirdy/Al Jazeera]

    Controversial law

    If enacted, the Fugitive Offenders and Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Legislation (Amendment) Bill, critics argue, would cede vital freedoms enjoyed by Hong Kongers, undermining the independence of Hong Kong's legal system and putting its citizens and foreign nationals at risk.

    It would allow the government to send anyone accused of serious crime across the border to mainland China, where the justice system is widely perceived as opaque and politically motivated. It reportedly has conviction rates nearing 100 percent.

    The contentious bill was scheduled for debate on Wednesday, but it was cancelled after the protesters surrounded the Legislative Council complex, with legislators unable to enter the chambers.

    Those demonstrations turned ugly, with police in riot gear taking on protesters with tear gas, pepper spray, water cannon and batons. Several people were injured in the clashes, with some protesters reportedly arrested by police in hospital after the demonstrations were quashed.

    Eroding freedoms

    While the territory is part of China, following its return from British rule in 1997, it enjoys a high degree of autonomy from Beijing, thanks to the "one country, two systems" formula signed by the outgoing British administration and the new Chinese government.

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    Article 4 of the Basic Law, the de-facto constitution that forms the basis of Hong Kong's autonomy, promises to "safeguard the rights and freedoms of the residents of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region and of other persons in the Region in accordance with law".

    Part of this autonomy comes in the form of its independent judiciary, which, critics of the proposed changes argue, would be eroded if Beijing had the right to request those accused of crimes in the mainland were turned over.

    Beijing insists it was not instrumental in the former British territory's decision to change the law, but earlier in the week indicated that it is supportive of the amendment.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News