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Police watchdog head Anthony Neoh spoke to the Post over the weekend. Photo: May Tse

Exclusive | Hong Kong protests need a political solution and that should start with withdrawing extradition bill, police watchdog chief Anthony Neoh says

  • Anthony Neoh, head of the police watchdog, says formally withdrawing the unpopular extradition legislation would give it a ‘proper burial’ and soothe public anger
  • He does not rule out a judge-led inquiry after that

Hong Kong must not rely on the police alone to restore calm to the city as the current impasse requires a political solution that should start with the formal withdrawal of the extradition bill that sparked the crisis, the chairman of the police watchdog has said.

Senior lawyer Anthony Neoh SC, who heads the Independent Police Complaints Council (IPCC), also did not rule out having a commission of inquiry at a later stage, once other restorative steps have been taken, including bringing about reconciliation.

“I don’t think the police by themselves can deal with the situation,” he said in an exclusive interview with the Post. His assessment stands in stark contrast to the brave face being put up by the city’s top police officers, who have expressed confidence in doing what the government has asked of them.

Neoh said police had been placed in the invidious position of enforcing law and order, and then having to cope with the fallout from Hongkongers who sympathise with the protesters.

Neoh said the current impasse requires a political solution. Photo: May Tse

He noted that if the police thought laws were being broken, they would have to deal with it. “But then, the more they deal with it, the more antipathy they create at the moment. And it becomes a vicious circle as we can all see. Let’s call a spade a spade on this one,” he said.

And without a political solution, Hong Kong would face either a war of attrition or spiralling conflict, he went on.

The decision on the solution must from both the central government and the Hong Kong administration of Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, he added.

“Every time I see the chief executive, I mention to her, you need a political solution,” he said. “She agrees, and she says she’s working on it.”

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On Lam and Beijing’s insistence that negotiations can only start after protesters stop the violence, Neoh said: “This will have to be a rough-and-ready line.”

Even if there are some minor radical actions, and the overall situation is peaceful, it could be time to “draw a line in the sand” and offer a political solution, he said.

Speaking over the weekend, he added that if there was peace during these past few days, it was perhaps time to start reviewing other options on the table.

Top of the protesters’ list of demands is the formal withdrawal of the now-abandoned extradition bill – a demand that Neoh described as “eminently reasonable”.

It is only dead in the mind of the government because the government has undertaken not to revive it. That is not the way to withdraw legislation
Anthony Neoh, IPCC head

Lam has already declared the bill dead. But formally withdrawing the bill would give it a “proper burial” that would soothe public anger, he said.

“It is only dead in the mind of the government because the government has undertaken not to revive it. That is not the way to withdraw legislation,” he said.

Protesters have also demanded an independent commission of inquiry (COI) into the police’s use of force. Lam has refused. The government has instead appointed an IPCC task force to investigate the clashes between police and protesters.

Neoh, who heads the task force, said the government should not rule out convening a COI later. “Don’t shut the door, but be very careful in doing it,” he said. It should focus on how to improve the police force, he said, as culpability of individual officers should be dealt with through internal disciplinary procedures.

He revealed the IPCC panel was about to enlist overseas experts, including from Britain and Canada, who had dealt with similar crises in their home countries. He had already met former senior police officers involved in dealing with the 2011 riots in English cities, and was also talking to others in Australia, New Zealand and Canada.

He said there were similarities between Hong Kong’s disturbances and the UK’s 2011 riots and the “yellow vest” protests in France over the past year.

“How do you separate the people that need to have the law enforced on them, and the people who support them but are not involved in the beating up of the police with force, and the population who are probably – we can be reasonably certain – sympathetic with them?” he asked.

Neoh said there were similarities between Hong Kong’s disturbances and “yellow vest” protests in France. Photo: AFP

In the case of Britain, for example, after the riots of 2011, apart from the police investigating what went wrong, a special community and victims’ panel was set up to initiate reconciliation, and special research was conducted on protesters –many of whom did not want to be identified for fear of prosecution – to find out the real causes of their grievances.

On the work of the IPCC, Neoh said it had received 243 protest-related complaints against the police. It is studying some 24,000 videos and images. He said he could not prejudge the evidence, but acknowledged that the supervision of officers “on the ground may not be as good as it could be”.

“The question is whether they have sufficient training; whether they are able to identify the people who are using force, and therefore separate them from the rest of the crowd.”

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On long-term reconciliation, he said he hoped Lam would find neutral non-political people who understand young people and their aspirations. “The time has come for some real talking from the heart,” he said.

“What’s the issue in the minds of our young people? Because they are doing this for their own future. What is it in their own future that they considered important? Let’s have it out and see what could be done on this. I think it’s time to put things on the table and see what could be done. Maybe something can be done,” he said.

“If you ask for independence, that can’t be done, okay? But others, that could be done. For young people, they don’t have a future; they don’t have hope. How can you build a future? How can you build hope?”

On their demand for universal suffrage, Neoh said this was provided for in the Basic Law, the city’s mini-constitution. “The question is how do you get the candidates to be voted for? So again, why can’t we discuss it,” he said.