- Secretary for Security John Lee later softens stance and says those under 18 will not be arrested for time being
- With rising number of minors arrested since civil unrest began, parents and educators have implored government to show leniency to young
Hong Kong's security chief sparked uproar on Wednesday by declaring that all protesters who left a besieged university would be arrested, drawing a sharp rebuke from parents and educators who accused him of hindering their attempts to de-escalate the stand-off.
With a rising number of students being arrested, including many minors, since the protests first began in June, parents, principals and educators have urged the government to show leniency when handling cases considering the future of many young lives was at stake.
Secretary for Security John Lee Ka-chiu later softened his stance and said those under the age of 18 who left the campus would not be arrested for the time being, but that police would reserve the right to take follow-up action.
Nearly 900 people had surrendered to police as of Wednesday morning, around 300 of them under 18, Lee said. Police in the evening said the figure had grown further to 1,000 with another 700 arrested.
Police have surrounded the Polytechnic University campus in Hung Hom since Sunday evening, following a day of extremely violent clashes which the force termed as a riot.
"We will arrest them all for rioting. Of course, police will investigate after arrest," Lee told reporters on Wednesday morning, referring to offences that could result in a maximum penalty of 10 years in jail.
"The law is clear. Regardless of the initial objective and meaning, any assembly, if people have carried out acts that contravene or breach the peace in society in an assembly, such a gathering will be considered as (committing) the offence of rioting."
Lee made the remarks at a media briefing in the Legislative Council, while a group of school principals were working hard to persuade protesters, especially minors, to leave the PolyU campus.
"It is disappointing and shocking. It has affected our work, and our mutual trust with the students," Li Kin-man, the principal of Salesians of Don Bosco Ng Siu Mui Secondary School said.
"We told the students we are here to accompany them to leave the campus, not to surrender to the police."
Li believed more than 30 protesters under 18 remained on the campus, with many he talked to suffering from fear and anxiety.
"They are afraid of what is going to happen. They feel like the future is out of control," he said. "But our minister still talks in a threatening and high-handed manner."
Worried parents complained that the city's leader Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, also a mother of two, had failed to protect the youngsters.
Cindy Hui, who went near the campus on Monday to find her 17-year-old son, said the parents she met there shared a thought: "If Carrie Lam's children were inside, would the government take a hard line like this?"
Hui's son managed to escape by abseiling out on Monday night, but she was worried he would still take part in future protests.
"I told him a criminal record will limit his choices in future studies, employment and applications for immigration, but youngsters do not consider these things," she said. "If the government does not soften its stance, more youngsters will risk their future for a fight."
Li said he was glad to hear Lee had clarified in the afternoon that minors would be released after providing their details, but he hoped the government would do much more for the younger generation.
"These youngsters are not unwilling to bear the legal consequences. But the government has to study the cause and think about why they have risked bright futures by taking to the streets," he said. Teddy Tang Chun-keung, chairman of the Hong Kong Association of the Heads of Secondary Schools, who was also inside the campus, echoed the calls for the government to take a more lenient approach.
"Many in society also find it heartbreaking to see so many youngsters being arrested. The government should consider using discretionary powers if laws allow."
Legal scholar Eric Cheung Tat-ming, of the University of Hong Kong, who entered the campus on Monday persuading students to leave, said he found Lee's remarks of "arresting all" illogical from a legal perspective.
He said any arrests had to be based on reasonable grounds with evidence and some who had stayed on campus for specific purposes, such as the voluntary first aiders, should not be arrested.
He added that merely being in an assembly where others were rioting did not itself constitute rioting.
"If 10 people are rioting but 90 others are peacefully demonstrating, the majority are not liable for rioting unless they shouted slogans showing support for the acts of others," he said.
More than 4,400 people have so far been arrested since the protests erupted in June, of whom around 40 per cent are students.
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