A new Amnesty International field investigation has documented an alarming pattern of the Hong Kong Police Force deploying reckless and indiscriminate tactics, including while arresting people at protests, as well as exclusive evidence of torture and other ill-treatment in detention.
After interviewing nearly two dozen arrested persons and gathering corroborating evidence and testimonies from lawyers, health workers and others, the organization is demanding a prompt and independent investigation into the violations, which appear to have escalated in severity since the mass protests began in June.
“The Hong Kong police’s heavy-handed crowd-control response on the streets has been livestreamed for the world to see. Much less visible is the plethora of police abuses against protesters that take place out of sight,” said Nicholas Bequelin, East Asia Director at Amnesty International.
“The evidence leaves little room for doubt – in an apparent thirst for retaliation, Hong Kong’s security forces have engaged in a disturbing pattern of reckless and unlawful tactics against people during the protests. This has included arbitrary arrests and retaliatory violence against arrested persons in custody, some of which has amounted to torture.”
More than 1,300 people have been arrested in the context of the mass protests that started over proposed legislative amendments that would have allowed for extradition to mainland China. While the vast majority of protesters have been peaceful, there has been violence, which appears to be escalating alongside excessive use of force by the police. Most people who spoke to Amnesty International requested anonymity, citing fears of reprisals from the authorities amid a climate of impunity.
Interviews of arrested persons and lawyers by Amnesty International show that police violence most commonly occurred before and during arrest. In several cases, detained protesters have also been severely beaten in custody and suffered other ill-treatment amounting to torture. In multiple instances, the abuse appears to have been meted out as “punishment” for talking back or appearing uncooperative.
A man detained at a police station following his arrest at a protest in the New Territories in August told Amnesty International that after he refused to answer a police intake question, several officers took him to another room. There, they beat him severely and threatened to break his hands if he tried to protect himself.
“I felt my legs hit with something really hard. Then one [officer] flipped me over and put his knees on my chest. I felt the pain in my bones and couldn’t breathe. I tried to shout but I couldn’t breathe and couldn’t talk,” he said.
As the man was pinned to the ground, a police officer forced open the man’s eye and shined a laser pen into it, asking, “Don’t you like to point this at people?” This was an apparent reprisal for some protesters’ use of laser pens amid the protests. The man was later hospitalized for several days with a bone fracture and internal bleeding.
Amnesty International interviewed a different man who was arrested on another day in August in Sham Shui Po. The arresting officer repeatedly asked him to unlock his phone for inspection; angry at the refusals, the officer threatened to electrocute the man’s genitals. The man told Amnesty International he was “scared” the officer might follow through, “as the times are so crazy, I suppose anything is possible.”
While detained in a police station common room, the same man witnessed police officers force a boy to shine a laser pen into his own eye for about 20 seconds.
“It seems he used the laser pen to shine at the police station,” the man recalled. “They said, ‘If you like to point the pen at us so much, why don’t you do it to yourself?’”
Amnesty International also documented a clear pattern of police officers using unnecessary and excessive force during arrests of protesters, with anti-riot police and a Special Tactical Squad (STS), commonly known as “raptors”, responsible for the worst violence. Almost every arrested person interviewed described being beaten with batons and fists during their arrest, even when they posed no resistance.
A young woman arrested at a protest in Sheung Wan in July was one of many protesters who described being clubbed from behind with a police baton as she was running away from a police charge; she was knocked to the ground and police officers continued to beat her after her hands were zip-tied.
Similarly, a man arrested at a protest in Tsim Sha Tsui in August described retreating and then running as police charged at the assembled protesters. He told Amnesty International that “raptors” caught up to him and hit him from behind with their batons on his neck and shoulder. He said:
“Immediately I was beaten to the ground. Three of them got on me and pressed my face hard to the ground. A second later, they kicked my face … The same three STS kept putting pressure on my body. I started to have difficulty breathing, and I felt severe pain in my left ribcage … They said to me, ‘Just shut up, stop making noise.’”
According to medical records, he was hospitalized for two days and treated for a fractured rib and other injuries. In more than 85% of cases investigated by Amnesty International (18 out of 21), the arrested person was hospitalized as a result of their beating, with three of them spending at least five days in a hospital.
“Time and again, police officers meted out violence prior to and during arrests, even when the individual had been restrained or detained. The use of force was therefore clearly excessive, violating international human rights law,” said Nicholas Bequelin.
Amnesty International also documented multiple instances of arbitrary and unlawful arrests, as well as numerous cases where police denied or delayed access to lawyers and medical care to detainees. Providing timely access to lawyers, family members and medical professionals for persons in custody is an important safeguard against torture and other ill-treatment.
The findings come after a group of UN experts expressed alarm about the Hong Kong police’s pattern of attacks on and arrests of protesters.
“Given the pervasiveness of the abuses we found, it is clear that the Hong Kong Police Force is no longer in a position to investigate itself and remedy the widespread unlawful suppression of protesters. Amnesty International is urgently calling for an independent, impartial investigation aimed at delivering prosecutions, justice and reparation, as there is little trust in existing internal mechanisms such as the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC),” said Nicholas Bequelin.