HONG KONG: Hong Kong's embattled leader Carrie Lam on Saturday (Jun 15) suspended a controversial extradition Bill that sparked massive protests, but did not step down despite calls for her to do so.
In one of the most significant climbdowns by the government since Hong Kong was returned to Chinese rule in 1997, Lam said the city's legislature would stop all work on the Bill. Next steps would be decided after consultations with various parties, the chief executive said.
"The government has decided to suspend the legislative amendment exercise, restart our communication with all sectors of society, do more ... work and listen to different views of society," she told reporters.
"We have no intention to set a deadline for this work and promise to report to and consult members of the legislative council panel on security before we decide on the next step forward."
The proposed extradition law, which was to cover Hong Kong's 7 million residents and foreign and Chinese nationals living or travelling in the city, had many concerned it would threaten the rule of law that underpins Hong Kong's international financial status.
About 1 million people marched through Hong Kong last Sunday to protest the Bill, according to organisers of the march. Street demonstrations through the week were met with tear gas and rubber bullets from the police, plunging the city into turmoil.
Another protest march had been planned for this Sunday.
"I feel deep sorrow and regret that the deficiencies in our work and various other factors have stirred up substantial controversies and disputes in society following the relatively calm periods of the past two years," Lam said.
Cracks began to appear on Friday in the support base for the Bill, with several pro-Beijing politicians and a senior adviser to Lam saying discussion of the Bill should be shelved for the time being.
Local media reports said Lam held an emergency meeting on Friday night with her advisers, while Chinese officials were also meeting in the nearby city of Shenzhen to map a way out of the impasse.
Lam had said the extradition law is necessary to prevent criminals using Hong Kong as a place to hide and that human rights will be protected by the city's court which will decide on the extraditions on a case-by-case basis.
Critics, including leading lawyers and rights groups, note that China's justice system is controlled by the Communist Party, and marked by torture and forced confessions, arbitrary detention and poor access to lawyers.
Last Sunday's protest in the former British colony was the biggest political demonstration since its return to Chinese rule in 1997 under the "one country, two systems" deal. The agreement guarantees Hong Kong's special autonomy, including freedom of assembly, free press and independent judiciary.