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Police, protesters face off ahead of Hong Kong law debate

HONG KONG (AP) — Government officials in Hong Kong are bracing for a showdown as protesters and police continue to face off into the early morning hours outside the semiautonomous Chinese territory's legislature ahead of Wednesday's debate over changes allowing extradition to the Chinese mainland.

Opponents of legislation that would allow criminal suspects to be extradited to mainland China started gathering outside the Legislative Council Tuesday night with further demonstrations and labor strikes expected.

Several hundred mostly young people, some singing Christian hymns, have surrounded the building that houses the legislature. The demonstrators hope to block or delay passage of the amendments to two extradition laws which they say endanger the territory's judicial independence and Western-style freedoms.

The government plans to present the amendments to the legislature on Wednesday, despite a weekend protest by hundreds of thousands of people that was the territory's largest political demonstration in more than a decade.

The legislation has become a lightning rod for concerns about Beijing's increasing control over the former British colony, which had been promised it would retain its own legal and social institutions for 50 years after its return to Chinese rule in 1997.

"We're young but we know that if we don't stand up for our rights, we might lose them," said an 18-year-old protester who gave only her first name, Jacky. Police called in reinforcements and closed off access to the area around the Legislative Council and government headquarters, patrolling in the heat and humidity but without any immediate conflict with protesters.

Jimmy Sham, convener of the Civil Human Rights Front that organized Sunday's protest, said his group is prepared to keep fighting to defeat the legislation. "We will use our people to surround the Legislative Council, starting from tomorrow," Sham said Tuesday.

Hong Kong's leader, Chief Executive Carrie Lam, has consistently defended the legislation as necessary to close legal loopholes with other countries and territories. The legislature's president, Andrew Leung, has scheduled a vote on June 20.

Police closed off streets surrounding the legislature and government headquarters amid online calls for protesters to gather and show their opposition. Local media reports said thousands of additional officers were being mobilized to keep order.

The scene outside of the building was tense but calm as officers in riot gear were met by crowds of protesters. Some demonstrators were dozing off as the night wore on. One waved the flag of the United Kingdom in front of a line of police vans.

The Hong Kong government said its Legislative Council Complex will remain on Amber alert Wednesday, with services including the guided tours, library, archives, children's area and cafeteria suspended through the day.

The U.S. Consulate also issued a demonstration alert warning people to avoid the area, exercise caution and keep a low profile. Some businesses announced plans to close Wednesday and there were scattered reports of students planning to boycott classes. Rain was forecast overnight Tuesday into Wednesday, possibly reducing the size of crowds.

Sunday's protest was widely seen as reflecting growing apprehension about relations with the Communist Party-ruled mainland, whose leader, Xi Jinping, has said he has zero tolerance for those demanding greater self-rule for Hong Kong.

Critics believe the extradition legislation would put Hong Kong residents at risk of being entrapped in China's judicial system, in which opponents of Communist Party rule have been charged with economic crimes or ill-defined national security offenses, and would not be guaranteed free trials.

Lam, who canceled her regular question and answer session on Wednesday, said the government has considered concerns from the private sector and altered the bill to improve human rights safeguards. She emphasized that extradition cases would be decided by Hong Kong courts.

"Even the chief executive could not overrule the court, to say that because (a country) wants this offender, I will surrender," Lam said. Ronny Tong Ka-wah, a lawyer and member of Lam's administration advisory committee, said Sunday's protest showed a lack of trust in Hong Kong's administration, partly because Lam was selected by a small number of electors rather than by popular vote. However, China's patience with Hong Kong's demands has its limits, Tong said.

"We need to gain the trust and confidence of Beijing so they can allow us the freedom of political reform," Tong said. "They don't want to see Hong Kong as a base of subversion. And I'm sorry, we're doing exactly that."

Opponents of the proposed extradition amendments say the changes would significantly compromise Hong Kong's legal independence, long viewed as one of the crucial differences between the territory and mainland China.

Hong Kong Bar Association Chair Philip Dykes said a lack of faith in Beijing's commitment to respecting Hong Kong's unique status remains a crucial issue. "The government is asking these people with decades of mistrust suddenly to trust the system and to accept assurances that the (Chinese) mainland will offer that they be honored. And that's clearly not persuading the people," Dykes said in an interview.

Hong Kong currently limits extraditions to jurisdictions with which it has existing agreements and to others on an individual basis. China has been excluded from those agreements because of concerns over its judicial independence and human rights record.

The proposed amendments to the Fugitive Offenders Ordinance and the Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Ordinance would expand the scope of criminal suspect transfers to include Taiwan, Macau and mainland China.

Lam has said the changes are necessary for Hong Kong to uphold justice and meet its international obligations. Without them, she said Hong Kong risks becoming a "fugitive offenders' haven." Supporters have pointed to the case of Chan Tong-kai, a Hong Kong man who admitted to Hong Kong police that he killed his girlfriend during a trip to Taiwan. Because Hong Kong and Taiwan don't have an extradition agreement, he has not been sent to Taiwan to face charges there, though he has been jailed in Hong Kong on money laundering charges.

Under its "one country, two systems" framework, Hong Kong was guaranteed the right to retain its own social, legal and political systems for 50 years. As a result, residents enjoy far greater freedoms than people on the mainland, such as the freedom to protest or publicly criticize the government.

Nevertheless, the Communist Party exerts influence on the Hong Kong government. Hong Kong voters cannot directly elect their chief executive. Lam was elected in 2017 by a committee dominated by pro-Beijing elites and is widely seen as the Communist Party's favored candidate.

The Legislative Council, Hong Kong's parliament, includes a sizable camp of pro-Beijing lawmakers. Beijing has made substantial efforts in recent years to integrate Hong Kong with the mainland. Last October, China opened the world's longest sea-crossing bridge, connecting Hong Kong and Macau to the city of Zhuhai in southern Guangdong province. The government has named the three combined locales the "Greater Bay Area," which it aims to turn into a center for technological innovation and advanced manufacturing.

Those in Hong Kong who anger China's central government have come under greater pressure since Chinese President Xi Jinping came to power in 2012. The detention of several Hong Kong booksellers in late 2015 intensified worries about the erosion of Hong Kong's rule of law. The booksellers vanished before resurfacing in police custody in mainland China. Among them, Swedish citizen Gui Minhai is currently being investigated on charges of leaking state secrets after he sold gossipy books about Chinese leaders.

In April, nine leaders of a 2014 pro-democracy protest movement known as the "Umbrella Revolution" were convicted on public nuisance and other charges. In May, Germany confirmed it had granted asylum to two people from Hong Kong who, according to media reports, were activists fleeing tightening restrictions at home. It was the first known case in recent years of a Western government accepting political refugees from Hong Kong.

Associated Press videojournalist Raf Wober contributed to this report. Associated Press writer Sally Ho contributed from Seattle.

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