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Tens of Thousands Protest Sexual Assault, Firing of Airline Staff in Hong Kong

2019-08-28 -- Tens of thousands of people converged on downtown Hong Kong's Central district on Wednesday in protest over alleged sexual violence towards anti-extradition protesters, mostly women, the politicized sacking of airline employees sympathetic to the anti-extradition movement.

The #ProtestToo gathering aimed to highlight a specific form of police violence after a number of women reported being sexually humiliated during strip searches while in police custody.

Wearing purple ribbons in solidarity with the victims, the protesters listened to reports of sexual harassment and assault, while organizers also screened footage of a woman being partially stripped of her clothing during the course of her arrest in Tin Shui Wai earlier this month.

Other demonstrators had the #ProtestToo hashtag -- which echoes the global #MeToo anti sexual harassment and assault hashtag -- written on their arms.

Meanwhile, police have denied knowledge of multiple suspicious injuries suffered by anti-extradition protesters at the San Uk Ling detention center near the border with mainland China.

A nurse at North District Hospital told local media that she had seen a number of unusual injuries among protesters who had been taken to the center on Aug. 11, including one with a severely damaged arm, and others with fractured ribs and bruises all over their bodies.

The patients told the nurse that they had been beaten up by officers while in custody, according to Now TV.

Some 30 people arrested in Causeway Bay and Tsim Sha Tsui were sent to hospital from the detention center, including six with bone fractures, police have admitted.

"When we try to control an arrested person, they would usually put up great resistance. And, when we are trying to handcuff him or her, some of them would try to put up resistance, and not to cooperate with the handcuffing," senior superintendent Kong Wing-cheung told a regular news briefing on Wednesday.

"So, our officer has to use reasonable force to control him and handcuff him," Kong said.

Cathay staff sacked

Protesters also gathered to protest the sacking of staff at Hong Kong's airlines Cathay Pacific and Cathay Dragon for their support for the anti-extradition movement, after pressure from the ruling Chinese Communist Party in Beijing.

China's Civil Aviation Administration issued a "significant security risk" warning to Cathay Pacific earlier this month, since when at least 20 people have lost their jobs in the aviation industry.

Former Cathay Dragon aircrew union leader Rachel Sy said she was dismissed with no explanation after executives called her in to confirm that private posts she had made to her Facebook account were in fact genuine.

More than a thousand people marched from Central to the glitzy shopping mall of Pacific Place, where an anti-extradition protester fell to his death at the start of the movement.

"Stop the white terror!" the marchers chanted. "Reverse the dismissal! Give us back our freedom of speech!"

"I know that I will not be the only one this happens to," Sy told RFA. "I am not afraid, because I know that I will have a lot of fellow travelers to support me."

"We're not just appealing on my behalf, but on behalf of all Hong Kong people," she said.

"I can't believe that no Hong Kong people ever took political positions and expressed political opinions on social media prior to June," she said. "So why were no employees dismissed up until then? Now there are 20 employees who have been unfairly sacked."

'Basic rights and freedoms'

A former airline employee surnamed Lo said he was also fired over social media posts, while a rally participant surnamed So said he was still hoping to express his freedom of speech by taking part.

"Why should I have to watch what I say on my own time, after work? Why can't I take a political position?" So said. "These are our basic rights and freedoms. Why is this happening?"

"If I don't come out in protest, these things will just keep happening, one after another. I can no longer remain politically disconnected just for the sake of making money," he said.

Another rally participant surnamed Chan agreed.

"They didn't do anything that violated company principles while they were on duty," Chan said. "They were unreasonably dismissed by the company."

Cathay has responded to the criticisms by saying that it must obey the laws of countries in which it operates.

Another group of protesters petitioned the Hong Kong government not to heed calls for a ban on masks in public places.

Jason Lam, convenor of the pro-Beijing group, Real Hongkongers' View, has said masks prevent police from identifying protesters at the anti-extradition protests, saying an anti-mask law would ensure protests remained peaceful.

France earlier this year passed a law banning the use of face masks after a series of yellow vest protests.

At least 13 countries have banned masks in public, including Germany, France and Italy, and more than 10 states in Canada and the United States.

Addressing protesters' demands

Icarus Wong, a member of the Civil Rights Observer group, said such a move would greatly facilitate Beijing-backed efforts to pursue even peaceful protesters for their political views, and wouldn't only affect those accused of criminal activities.

"This could easily infringe on freedom of expression and association, because we have seen many examples already in the current climate in Hong Kong of people who have been harassed ... and come under all kinds of pressure, even from their employers, because they took part in a protest," Wong said.

"Hong Kong people are masking up in peaceful gatherings precisely because they want to protect themselves and avoid being harassed or unreasonably treated because of their political positions and political opinions," he said.

Paul Yip, professor of social work and social administration at the University of Hong Kong, said the government needs at least to look at addressing the top two of the protesters' five demands: namely the formal withdrawal of amendments to the city's extradition laws, and an independent inquiry into police violence.

"The withdrawal of the amendments and the establishment of an independent inquiry are the two major demands of all Hong Kong citizens," Yip said. "If we are not willing to move on that, we will only see the problem and conflicts get worse and worse."

"The problem is that this has to be done by the only person with the power to do it," he said, in a reference to chief executive Carrie Lam.

The amendments are widely seen as a threat to Hong Kong's way of life, which was supposed to have been protected under the "one country, two systems" framework under which the former British colony was handed back to China in 1997.

If they become law, the city could lose its status as a separate legal jurisdiction and trading entity, while journalists, visitors, rights activists, dissidents, democratic politicians, and the business community could be targeted for words and actions deemed illegal by the ruling Chinese Communist Party, and extradited to face trial in Chinese courts.

The anti-extradition protesters are calling for the formal withdrawal of planned amendments to extradition laws, an amnesty for arrested protesters, an end to the description of protesters as rioters, an independent inquiry into police abuse of power, and fully democratic elections.

Reported by Man Hoi-tsan and Tam Siu-yin for RFA's Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.

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