Riot police fire tear gas at Hong Kong protesters in seventh week of mass marches

Social workers gather outside Legislative Council building to participate in an anti-government march in Hong Kong on July 21, 2019 in Hong Kong.

(CNN) — Riot police fired tear gas at protesters in Hong Kong Sunday evening after tens of thousands took to the street for the seventh consecutive weekend amid an ongoing political crisis over a now-suspended extradition bill.

The demonstration had begun as a peaceful march, with organizers estimating that more than 400,000 people had joined the rally, while police said 138,000 took part in the march. Many wore the signature black look that has become a common sight at recent protests and chanted “Free Hong Kong!” as they thronged through the city.

But as the night wore on, thousands defied police orders to march beyond the designated end point towards the Liaison Office, China’s central government building in Hong Kong. Protesters spray-painted slogans on walls close to the building, before retreating in the face of a growing police presence.

Intermittent skirmishes continued, as the crowd headed to the center of the city. Once there, riot police armed with batons and shields fired tear gas to disperse a large group of mostly young activists, who charged police lines armed with metal barricades.

Sunday’s clashes were the latest in a string of violent confrontations, as the protest movement evolves into a wider call for democratic reform.

The Civil Human Rights Front, which organized Sunday’s march, is demanding an independent investigation into what it says are unnecessarily brutal police tactics, as well as the release of those who were arrested during previous street clashes.

The protests were initially sparked by strong public opposition to a bill that critics fear would allow citizens to be sent across the border into mainland China, to face trial in a system with a 99% conviction rate and a history of political prosecutions. On June 18, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam said the bill was “dead” and there was “no such plan” to reanimate it.

For protesters, however, that is not enough. They are calling for the complete and formal withdrawal of the bill, as well as for Lam’s resignation and other democratic reforms in the city, which is ruled under a “One Country, Two Systems” arrangement with mainland China.

There was a heavy security presence along Sunday’s official protest route, following a police raid Friday night on a suspected bomb-making factory. Police have arrested three men in connection with the raid, in which 2 kilograms (4.4 pounds) of high-powered explosives, including triacetone triperoxide (TATP), and various weapons were uncovered. Leaflets linked to anti-extradition bill protests were also found on site.

Sunday’s march was one of several protests held in the city over the weekend.

Earlier on Sunday, about 4,000 social workers took to the streets in a silent march calling for Lam to step down, as well as for the complete withdrawal of the extradition bill and universal suffrage.

Registered social worker Tammy Leung said protesters were determined to keep marching week after week.

“Why we keep coming out? Because the government do not handle or respond to anything on what is happening,” said Leung. “All my life, it’s the first time for me to come out continuously, over the (past few) months. And why we do that? The government never responds, never listens. So I don’t think we’ll lose the public support. They will keep support us.”

Pro-police marches

The prolonged social movement gripping Hong Kong has not been limited to anti-extradition bill protesters. Those who support the city’s beleaguered police force and government are also making their voices heard.

On Saturday, thousands of demonstrators gathered in support of the government and police at a scheduled rally in Tamar Park, in the city center, to “safeguard Hong Kong” from the so-called “violence” of anti-extradition protesters.

The city’s police force has come under increased scrutiny in recent weeks following a series of violent clashes between police riot units and mostly young protesters. Many in the city have have accused the police of using excessive force, which some see as unnecessarily brutal.

Kay Chan, 39, a media worker said: “Not every Hong Kong people is against the police force. Still a lot of us support them and a lot of us support our government. And also I support Chinese government. And so I, I want to show my support so I come to the event today.”

One of the goals of Saturday’s pro-Beijing march was to voice support for the force, organizers said.

“Who gives us the rule of law in Hong Kong? Who gives us its confidence? It’s the Hong Kong police. They are doing a very good job,” David Lan, of the Friends of Hong Kong Association, said Friday, after handing over a large donation to the police welfare fund.

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