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Demonstrators in central Hong Kong. They are marching through the streets of Hong Kong on Sunday Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

‘Fighting for our freedom’: protesters flood on to Hong Kong’s streets

Tens of thousands dressed in black march for full retraction of China extradition law

WT24 Desk

Protesters are flooding into central Hong Kong again over the postponed extradition bill, calling for a full retraction of the legislation amid fears authorities could resume efforts to pass the proposed law if public anger dimmed.

Tens of thousands – possibly hundreds of thousands – took to the streets on Sunday after the chief executive, Carrie Lam, announced she had indefinitely halted efforts to pass a proposed extradition law. The legislation would have allowed residents and visitors to be sent for trial in China’s opaque Communist-controlled court system.

It represented perhaps the most serious government climbdown since a security law was dropped in 2003, an important democratic moment for a city where people are free to demonstrate but not able to choose their leaders.

However, Lam refused to apologise for police violence towards protesters, and said her errors were only of communication, not substance, insisting the extradition bill was needed for the city’s security.

Protesters, already concerned by police brutality, now fear a crackdown on activists could be on the way.

Opposition leaders responded by denouncing the bill’s suspension as merely a tactical retreat. They called on Hong Kong residents to turn out in large numbers on Sunday to keep up pressure on authorities.

By 3pm thousands of protesters, almost all dressed in black T-shirts or tops, were streaming through central Hong Kong towards Victoria Park where the protest march was due to begin.

“We’re fighting for our freedom,” said Betty, 18, who will start university next year.

“Suspending the law but not cancelling it is like holding a knife over someone’s head and saying, ‘I’m not going to kill you now.’ But you could do it any time.”

She was marching with around a dozen friends, who until last Sunday had not been involved in politics or taken part in demonstrations.

Like many young people at the march, she did not want to give her real name, worried after authorities cracked down on protesters who joined earlier marches, even arresting some in hospitals.

Many of those heading to the march also carried flowers, or wore white ribbons, in memory of a protester who fell to his death from a central building in the early hours of Saturday morning. In Wan Chai, along the procession route, a stand was set up for protesters to sign condolence books. The tributes called him a “matryr” of the anti extradition law movement.

Many of the protesters were holding up home made placards with messages including “They are kids, not rioters!” “I am not a rioter!” “Release the people arrested!” “Retract the bad law, condemn the crackdown, Carrie Lam is the culprit” “HK has become China, we’ll all stuffed” Some accuse Carrie Lam and other senior officials of being “killers” on their placards.

Outside the central Wan Chai metro station, prominent dissident and activist the Rev Chu Yiu-ming was greeting protesters.

He has decades of experience as an activist. He helped Tiananmen Square leaders escape mainland China in 1989 and was handed a suspended prison sentence for his role in the 2014 “umbrella protest”.

He said he could not have imagined three decades ago, as he helped those fleeing Beijing’s crackdown, that he would face such a bitter fight for his rights at home in Hong Kong.

Beside Chu, a small group welcomed new protesters with the hymn Sing Alleluia to the Lord, which has become an unofficial anthem of the protests. Others held collection boxes for the newly formed “extradition law trust” which will support those injured in the protests or detained for their role in them.

They filled up fast, with many of those arriving putting in HK$500 (£50) notes.

It was well organised, like previous marches, with free water stations lining the sweltering streets. Some carried notices reminding protesters to take their rubbish home, a kind of subtle rebuke to Lam’s designation of protesters as rioters.

Others carried more direct signs, saying “students aren’t rioters” and “stop killing us”.

The scale of opposition and anger over the bill first became clear a week ago, when around a million people, or nearly one in every seven Hong Kong residents, turned out for a protest. Lam shrugged off that show of public concern, insisting that voting on the much-criticised law would go ahead on Wednesday.

“Carrie Lam has a high opinion of herself. The social [protest] movement had long died down, and she was so confident that she thought she could rush this through,” said Ivan Choy, political scientist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

However that morning a huge crowd of demonstrators blocked access to the building, making it difficult for legislators to get inside and vote. As the day dragged on, skirmishes between police and protesters turned violent, with the police firing teargas rounds, rubber bullets and bean bags, and using their truncheons to beat protesters.

It was the worst political violence Hong Kong had seen since the handover from British rule in 1997. Officers said they had to use force in response to aggressive protesters, who besieged their lines, throwing missiles including bricks, though only a small number did that.

Critics including rights campaigners say authorities used the actions of a tiny minority as an excuse to unleash disproportionate force on the majority of predominantly peaceful protesters. Witnesses at the scene said it was police who first fired teargas bombs at unarmed protesters to disperse the crowd, who were unprepared for it.

Critics of the bill fear it would destroy the judicial “firewall” that protects Hong Kong’s economy and society from Chinese interference. Business figures had already started moving assets out of the territory because of the law, Reuters reported.

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