- Five-member panel had recommended Independent Police Complaints Council conduct own investigation into police conduct
- But after being rebuked by IPCC chairman Anthony Neoh, group says it will ‘stand down’ and points to ‘crucial shortfall’ in watchdog’s independence
Overseas experts advising Hong Kong's police watchdog have abruptly announced they will "stand aside" from an ongoing review of the force's actions during the protests, in a deepening rift between the two sides that first became public in November.
Last month, the five-member panel convened by the Independent Police Complaints Council (IPCC) said the watchdog should be given more powers to conduct its own investigation over officers' conduct in the handling of anti-government protests.
But council chairman Anthony Neoh, who had enlisted the members, all international experts with years of experience in policing and crowd behaviour, rejected their proposal. In an interview with a mainland media organisation, Neoh rebuked them for a lack of understanding of the situation in Hong Kong.
In a statement on Wednesday, the experts said following their 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 said.
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.
In response, the IPCC 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 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 at the earliest, 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.
We ultimately concluded that a crucial shortfall was evident in the powers, capacity and independent investigative capability of IPCCOverseas advisors to IPCC
"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 Cheng Yuet-ngor by the end of December, and to be published in late January at the earliest.
Until their statement, the panel, which was Neoh's idea, was focusing on six key dates of the protests as part of the study: the demonstrations on June 9 and 12, July 1, August 1 and 31, and the attack on passengers and protesters at Yuen Long MTR station on July 21.
In late July, Neoh and IPCC secretariat staff flew to Britain and met with O'Connor, the former British chief inspector of constabulary, and Stott, a professor of social psychology at Keele University and later invited them to join the panel. He also approached Doherty, Justice Michael Adams, chief commissioner of the Law Enforcement Conduct Commission, in New South Wales, Australia, and Gerry McNeilly, the former director of the Independent Office of Police Review, in Ontario, Canada.
In an interview with the Post in August, Neoh drew parallels between the protests in Hong Kong and the week-long London riots of 2011. Neoh noted that the British government also did not launch a judge-led commission of inquiry, and instead appointed O'Connor to review police tactics and operations, an approach that found favour with the Hong Kong government in tackling the current crisis, which is now entering its seventh month.
Nothing independent about Hong Kong police complaints process say critics
But, after the panel made the recommendation last month to give the watchdog more power, Neoh criticised it for lacking an understanding of the city's processes in subpoena and summon statements.
The group of experts visited Hong Kong twice, and was supposed to assist the IPCC beyond the preliminary report, and to propose recommendations to improve police operations.
Neoh said in November that watchdog could be given investigatory powers in the long-term, but he would not say if this recommendation would be in the preliminary report.
Previously, he also said the power and structure of the IPCC could be reviewed in the event the government decided to convene an independent inquiry.
The watchdog's governing council has yet to formally make a decision whether to adopt or veto the panel's recommendation.
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