Foreign experts advising Hong Kong's police watchdog have abruptly announced they will "stand aside" from an ongoing review of officers' actions during the anti-government protests.
Last month, the five-member panel of overseas experts convened by the Independent Police Complaints Council (IPCC) said the watchdog should be given more powers to conduct its own investigation over officers' conduct during the protests.
But council chairman Anthony Neoh, who had enlisted the members, all international experts with years of experience in policing and crowd behavior, rejected their proposal. In an interview with a mainland Chinese media organization, Neoh criticized them for a lack of understanding of the situation in Hong Kong.
In a statement on Wednesday, the experts said following their previous recommendation to give IPCC 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 reiterated that 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 met their rights and freedoms.
But, the IPCC's vice-chairman, Tony Tse Wai-chuen, said the panel had not resigned, without elaborating on any discussions that had taken place.
"Round one of their work has come to an end, that's what they meant by 'stand aside'," Tse said. "We hope they will be in close contact afterwards."
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.
Among the experts invited to take part were Sir Denis O'Connor, the former British chief inspector of constabulary, and Justice Colin Doherty, the head of New Zealand's police watchdog.
The panel, which was supposed to be involved in the watchdog's ongoing review beyond its first report due in late January, 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."
Neoh defended the watchdog over its lack of investigatory power, and pointed to the fact that the IPCC relied on support from the city's chief executive and commission of police, and said it had to advance the recommendation of investigation power under the IPCC Ordinance.
"Any change to current IPCC Ordinance would require consensus from the community and stakeholders and to be pursued in accordance with the statutory procedures," the chairman said.
The watchdog's remit presently allows it to only review complaints against officers passed on by the police's complaints division, but it does not have the power to launch its own investigation or subpoena any documents or witnesses.
"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 group's recommendation for more investigatory powers for the watchdog was first revealed by another one of its members, Professor Clifford Stott, in a Twitter post in mid-November, ahead of an arranged media briefing.
The IPCC later said it was disappointed with the tweet, insisting it was not an announcement but "personal action" on Stott's part.
It was not immediately clear if that directly affected the working relations between the IPCC and the panel, including access to the draft report which is expected to be submitted to Chief Executive Carrie Lam by the end of December, and to be published in late January at the earliest.
The Civil Human Rights Front, which has organized several large rallies in recent months, called on Lam to establish an independent inquiry, instead of relying on the watchdog to investigate the police.
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