Police fired live rounds on 12 occasions when they “had reasonable suspicion of lethal force” being used or prepared against them, the Independent Police Complaints Council said in the lengthy report.
Its conclusions are unlikely to convince critics who say officers unnecessarily fired bullets, tear gas, rubber bullets and pepper spray to suppress the sometimes violent protests. Although described as independent, the council is appointed by Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam, leading critics to say it ultimately serves the interests of the pro-Beijing administration rather than civil society. It has no investigative powers of its own.
The report assessed six days between June and August last year near the beginning of the protest movement, which was sparked by the Hong Kong government's attempt to pass a bill that would have allowed suspects to be extradited from the semi-autonomous territory to face trial in mainland China. The legislation was ultimately withdrawn but the protests continued over several complaints, including a demand that police be held accountable for their heavy-handed response.
The protests began peacefully but at times descended into violence, with clashes between police and protesters leading to accusations that the police abused their power and even colluded with organized crime figures, who on one occasion attacked protesters and escaped mostly without being arrested.
The report found “room for improvement” in the police's handling of clashes with protesters, making recommendations such as a review of the police operational command structure, its guidelines on the use of force and officer training.
Lam said at a news conference on Friday that the report was “comprehensive and objective” and that she will accept its recommendations. “Hong Kong has been adopting many internationally adopted guidelines on use of force. Of course, it’s not perfect, and we could improve on that,” Anthony Neoh, chairman of the council, said at a news conference.
“We also want the report to serve a broader purpose and objective, so that the public will have a better understanding of what has happened in Hong Kong,” he said. A panel of international experts appointed to advise the council last November concluded that it lacked the power and independent investigative capacity to conduct a meaningful probe, but the council continued its work.
The human rights group Amnesty International said in March that the council lacked impartiality and echoed protesters’ demands that the government establish a truly independent inquiry into police conduct.
The council's report said the protest movement, which was initially peaceful, had degenerated into violent protests with participants attacking police and destroying property. It said police seized assault rifles, hand guns, ammunition and bomb-making materials connected to the protests, demonstrating that “our community is being dragged into an era of terrorism.”
Large-scale protests have ended, but the report said their economic damage had been compounded by the coronavirus pandemic. Lam on Friday put plans for an independent review of the underlying causes of the protest movement on hold, saying she will focus on overcoming the economic challenges caused by the virus.
Hong Kong is a former British colony that was returned to Chinese rule in 1997 with a guarantee it could retain its own legal and other institutions for 50 years. Critics say China has been gradually eroding that semi-autonomous status, fueling the opposition movement.