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Hong Kong Charges 2 Men Over Mob Attack on Protesters

HONG KONG — The Hong Kong authorities said on Thursday that they had charged two men with rioting over a mob attack on protesters and passers-by in a train station in a satellite town last month. The assault led to widespread criticism of the police for their failure to stop the violence and of prosecutors for the time it took to charge anyone.

Dozens of people were injured — including journalists, protesters, a pro-democracy lawmaker and bystanders — when more than 100 men dressed in white shirts and wielding sticks and metal bars swarmed inside the Yuen Long train station in northwestern Hong Kong on July 21. On Wednesday, thousands gathered in Yuen Long to remember those injured in the attack and to call for swifter prosecution.

No suspects were arrested in the hours after the violence. A police official said that none of the men were seen with weapons, despite photographs and video of officers talking to men in white shirts holding sticks and metal rods.

In the weeks after the attack, the police arrested more than 20 people, including some who had connections with organized crime. On Thursday, Kong Wing-cheung, senior superintendent of the Police Public Relations Branch, sought to justify the apparent delay, saying that the police sometimes do not make immediate arrests when they fear it could escalate volatile situations.

Police officials had previously acknowledged shortcomings in their response in Yuen Long but had defended their overall actions, saying the need to send officers to other parts of the city had put strains on their response times. When Matthew Cheung, the No. 2 official in the Hong Kong government, apologized for the police response, some officers and police associations denounced him.

On Thursday, John Tse, chief superintendent of the Police Public Relations Branch, said that the investigation into the attacks was continuing, but he did not discuss the possibility of additional charges.

ImageCreditLam Yik Fei for The New York Times

Lam Cheuk-ting, the lawmaker who was injured in the attack, said on Thursday that many more should face prosecution.

“I hope the police could also catch all of them,” he said. “There were more than a hundred people in Yuen Long that night. It must not be the end.”

The protests in Hong Kong began months ago over a now-suspended proposal that would allow extraditions to mainland China. Demonstrators continue to call for a full withdrawal of the legislation, and their demands have grown to include an amnesty for arrested protesters, expanded elections and an investigation into the use of force by the police.

Also on Thursday, a newspaper controlled by the Chinese Communist Party reported that an employee of the British consulate in Hong Kong who was being held in mainland China had been accused of visiting a prostitute. The family of the employee, Simon Cheng, a trade officer for the consulate, said he did not return from an Aug. 8 work trip to Shenzhen, a mainland city bordering Hong Kong.

He exchanged text messages with his girlfriend that night as he returned to Hong Kong by high-speed train. “Pray for me,” Mr. Cheng said.

His family said in a statement on Wednesday that they had been trying without success to find out where he was being held or what charges he faced.

Hu Xijin, editor in chief of Global Times, a Communist Party-owned tabloid, wrote on Twitter that Mr. Cheng had asked the police to not tell his family. “Police are willing to help reduce damage to his reputation,” Mr. Hu wrote, adding, “U.K. diplomats and media ruined him.” He did not explain why the police chose to release the information to state-owned news outlets.

ImageCreditLam Yik Fei for The New York Times

Mr. Cheng’s family and his girlfriend declined to comment on the report.

“Everyone knows it’s not the truth,” Tommy Cheung, a friend, wrote on Twitter. “But time will tell.”

The British Foreign and Commonwealth Office said in a statement on Friday that it had not been able to speak to Mr. Cheng since his detention, adding that it had repeatedly raised the case with the Chinese authorities and was “urgently” seeking further information.

Mr. Cheng’s supporters in Hong Kong had raised questions about his disappearance. His involvement in the demonstrations, if any, is not clear, but Chinese officials have accused Britain and the United States of supporting the protests.

Michael Mo, an organizer of a demonstration to show support for Mr. Cheng, called his arrest “lame smear tactics” against a “seemingly politically active person.”

The accusations against Mr. Cheng were also a reminder of one of the main reasons for the demonstrations. Many protesters said they feared that allowing extraditions to mainland China would drastically increase residents’ exposure to the mainland legal system and the risk of arbitrary and political prosecutions.

In a sign that such fears were being taken seriously outside the city, a senior Canadian official said on Thursday that local staff would no longer travel outside Hong Kong. The move comes amid growing concerns that China could retaliate against Chinese employees of governments that have criticized its handling of the crisis.

The official said that Britain and Australia had undertaken similar restrictions and that Canada was coordinating with its allies to address potential risks to staff members who were not accredited diplomats and do not have diplomatic passports.

ImageCreditLam Yik Fei for The New York Times

On Sunday, Chinese authorities warned Canada to stop interfering in Hong Kong affairs after the country joined the European Union in calling for China to respect peoples’ rights of assembly. Speaking on Wednesday in Montreal, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau reiterated Canada’s stance.

There are roughly 300,000 Canadian citizens living in Hong Kong, according to Canada’s Foreign Ministry. Canada and China have been ensnared in a geopolitical squabble following the arrest in Vancouver in December of Huawei’s chief financial officer, Meng Wanzhou, at the request of the United States. In response, China arrested two Canadians and has accused them of espionage.

Hong Kong, which returned to Chinese control in 1997 after more than 150 years as a British colony, has its own political and legal systems that provide far greater protections for civil liberties then those in the mainland China. But fear of the erosion of those systems under pressure from the mainland has been a major factor in recent discontent.

Since suspending the extradition legislation in June, the Hong Kong government has done little to respond to the demonstrations. The police have become the most public face of the authorities, clashing with confrontational protesters and firing more than 1,800 canisters of tear gas since early June. In recent days, however, both the police and protesters have pulled back before standoffs have escalated into serious violence.

Police officials have defended their use of force. In response to a New York Times investigation about the use of tear gas, Mr. Kong, the police superintendent, said on Thursday that video of tear gas canisters falling from height on Aug. 5 “seems to be an illusion created by the camera angle.”

He said officers fired tear gas from a platform about four or five stories high at protesters on an elevated area about two or three stories high. “I believe that our colleagues were shooting tear gas at an angle toward the sky from the lower floor close to the ground, then the tear gas fell,” Mr. Kong said.

He did not respond to other accusations the police had violated standards for use of tear gas, including inside a subway station or firing canisters directly at people.


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