HONG KONG: Huge crowds of people filled Hong Kong's commercial district on Monday evening (Oct 14), urging US lawmakers to pass a Bill that would make Chinese and Hong Kong officials deemed to have undermined autonomy in the city vulnerable to sanctions.
The rally, attended by tens of thousands of people, is the first to be approved by the police since the introduction of colonial-era emergency powers early this month.
The emergency law, which also banned protesters from wearing facial masks, had sparked some of the worst violence since the unrest started in June.
On Monday night, many protesters wore face masks in defiance of the ban.
The protesters, who were overwhelmingly young, chanted "Fight for Freedom, Fight for Hong Kong" at Chater Garden in Admiralty district near government headquarters.
"We are here to make an urgent call out to the international community to support us, we have no other way," a 24-year-old art student, who gave her surname as Chun, told AFP.
"All of the Hong Kong people feel hopeless and the government hasn’t listened to our voices so we need the USA to help us," said protester Edward Fong, 28.
One speaker called on US senators to vote for the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2019, saying it would be their "most powerful weapon". Some protesters waved US flags.
The Bill supports human rights in Hong Kong with measures under consideration such as annual reviews of its special economic status and sanctions on those who undermine its autonomy.
The text will not be finalised until it passes both houses of Congress and is signed by the president. It could be discussed and voted on by the US House of Representatives as early as this week.
Among the Bill's sponsors is Josh Hawley, a Republican senator for Missouri who was in Hong Kong on a two-day trip during which he watched protests on Sunday.
"The situation here is urgent," he told reporters shortly before flying back to Washington before Monday night's rally.
The Hong Kong government late on Monday "expressed regret" over the protesters' demands for US Congress to pass the Bill, and reiterated that "foreign legislatures should not interfere in any form in the internal affairs of the HKSAR (Hong Kong Special Administrative Region)".
"Since the return to the Motherland, the HKSAR has been exercising 'Hong Kong people administering Hong Kong' and a high degree of autonomy in strict accordance with the Basic Law of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People's Republic of China," it said in a press release.
"The 'one country, two systems' principle has been fully and successfully implemented. Human rights and freedoms in Hong Kong are fully protected by the Basic Law, the Hong Kong Bill of Rights Ordinance and other legislation. The HKSAR Government attaches great importance to them and is determined to safeguard them," it added.
The city was battered by another weekend of unrest as hardcore protesters and police fought running battles with officers warning the violence had now reached "life-threatening levels".
At a briefing on Monday, police said they were facing increasingly dangerous attacks from protesters, including the first use of a crude homemade explosive device and a policeman who was slashed in the neck with a knife.
But police have also been accused of using excessive force throughout the summer.
In the latest allegation, a driver for local news station NowTV accused officers of assaulting him in custody after he was briefly detained.
Protests pushing for greater democratic freedoms and police accountability have raged for the last 19 weeks and there is little end in sight as Beijing and local leaders refuse concessions.
"We are exhausted and scared, many of us have been detained and tortured," said the main speaker at Monday's rally who gave his name as Isaac.
"We believe international help will come one day."
Police have fired thousands of rounds of tear gas and rubber bullets at brick- and petrol bomb-throwing protesters and arrested more than 2,300 people since June, including many young teenagers.
Two people have been shot and wounded.
Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam is due to deliver her annual Policy Address on Wednesday amid pressure to restore confidence in the government.
The Chinese-held territory is facing its first recession in a decade because of the protests, with tourism and retail hardest hit.
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