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Anti-government protesters are arrested while trying to escape from Polytechnic University. Photo: Sam Tsang

Overseas experts advising police watchdog on Hong Kong protests quit their jobs as disagreement over powers remains unresolved

  • Five-member panel had recommended Independent Police Complaints Council conduct own investigation into police conduct
  • But after being rebuked by IPCC chairman Anthony Neoh, group says it will ‘stand aside’ and points to ‘crucial shortfall’ in watchdog’s independence
International experts advising Hong Kong’s police watchdog have abruptly decided to “stand aside” from an ongoing investigation into the force’s handling of months of anti-government protests, deepening a rift that first became public in November and raising further concerns about the credibility of the review.
The five-member International Expert Panel, convened by the Independent Police Complaints Council (IPCC), dropped the bombshell a month after it proposed the body should be given more powers to conduct a full investigation into officers’ conduct in the handling of the often-violent protests first triggered by the government’s now-withdrawn extradition bill.

While the IPCC has yet to make a decision on their request for more powers, such as allowing the council to subpoena documents and witnesses, chairman Anthony Neoh, who enlisted the experts with years of experience in policing and crowd behaviour, had questioned whether they understood Hong Kong, and described their suggestions as having overstepped the watchdog’s remit.

Neoh and his deputy, pro-establishment lawmaker Tony Tse Wai-chuen, sought to play down the implications of the experts’ decision on Wednesday, insisting they were not quitting – only “standing aside” after finishing their work, and could be involved again later.

Inviting five overseas experts to advise the police watchdog was the idea of IPCC chairman Anthony Neoh. Photo: K.Y. Cheng

“I don’t think it is a resignation ... The first stage of our work has been collecting the facts. They came here twice and both meetings were useful,” Neoh said.

Tse added: “Round one of their work has come to an end, that’s what they meant by ‘stand aside’. We hope they will be in close contact afterwards.”

Resignations from police watchdog’s protests review ‘reveal system flaws’

But commentators were quick to conclude that the experts had effectively resigned, as they were originally tasked to participate in all three rounds of the IPCC’s review – fact-finding, assessment and recommendations, of which the findings of the first part have yet to be released.

Opposition pan-democratic lawmakers likened it to a vote of no-confidence in any report the IPCC might come up with. They, along with pro-democracy groups such as the Civil Human Rights Front, urged embattled Hong Kong leader Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor to set up an official commission of inquiry.

“Don’t waste our time, please ... grab this golden opportunity to persuade Beijing, or any person, to support an independent commission of inquiry (COI),” said Tanya Chan, convenor of the pro-democracy legislators.

Last month, Lam sought to allay simmering discontent by revealing that she was setting up an independent review committee as well to investigate the underlying causes of the protests.

Pro-establishment lawmakers Priscilla Leung Mei-fun and Eunice Yung Hoi-yan called for the review committee to be given more investigative powers, now that the international experts were standing aside.

Without addressing the experts’ absence, a government spokesman would only say the study results would be closely watched and recommendations carefully examined before deciding on any follow-up actions.

Tony Tse says round one of the experts’ work has ended. Photo: Now TV

Asked in Beijing to comment on the experts’ departure, foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying reiterated that Hong Kong police had been restrained and professional in handling protests.

“It is a big lie to say that the police in Hong Kong had abused or used excessive force,” she said.

The IPCC report is expected to be submitted to Lam by the end of December, and to be published in late January at the earliest.

Sources previously told the Post that officials would consider setting up the commission of inquiry – a core demand of the protest movement – if the public was dissatisfied with the police watchdog’s report.

In a statement on Wednesday, the experts said despite their calls for more investigatory powers, “dialogue with the IPCC has not led to any agreed process through which the [panel] would be able to effectively support the Thematic Study [of several key protest dates] any further at this stage”.

“As a result, the [panel] has taken the decision to formally stand aside from its role,” they said.

They reiterated their proposal was made with the aim of starting the process of getting the IPCC to “begin to meet the standards” that Hong Kong citizens would need of a police watchdog that would honour their rights and freedoms.

“While we assessed that meaningful progress had been made in data collection and analysis, we ultimately concluded that a crucial shortfall was evident in the powers, capacity and independent investigative capability of IPCC,” the panel said.

The panel, which was supposed to be involved in the watchdog’s ongoing review beyond its first report due in late January at the earliest, said it remained committed to engaging with the IPCC – “if and when it develops the necessary capabilities and provides its draft interim report on the protests”.

Among the experts invited to take part were Denis O’Connor, a former British chief inspector of constabulary, and Justice Colin Doherty, head of New Zealand’s police watchdog.

Denis O’Connor was invited to be one of the overseas experts advising the Independent Police Complaints Council. Photo: Nora Tam

The watchdog’s governing council said it deeply appreciated the panel’s participation and contribution, and stressed its advice would be considered “thoroughly” in the review process.

“The IPCC is pleased that [panel] members desire to remain engaged. After publishing the first interim report, depending on the development of events and needs, the IPCC will review the way forward and liaise with the [panel] members on appropriate arrangements going forward,” it said in a statement on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, Lam was apologetic as she met members of the pro-establishment New People’s Party on Wednesday afternoon, after the landslide loss of the bloc in November’s district council elections.

Chairwoman Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee, an adviser to Lam in the Executive Council, rejected the chief executive’s apology.

“Lam just said the phrase ‘I apologise’ in her opening remarks, which was not that sincere. Some members told her in the face that her apology was not accepted,” Ip said.

“We did not lose because of our performance, but because of the government and politics ... We hope the chief executive will not just talk, but improve governance and benefit Hong Kong with concrete actions.”

Additional reporting by Kimmy Chung and Jeffie Lam

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: overseas team quits after row over police watchdog