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Hong Kong braces for huge rally as public anger boils

Critics fear the Beijing-backed law will tangle people up in China's notoriously opaque and politicised courts and damage the city's reputation as a safe business hub.

Protesters occupy the roads near the Legislative Council and government headquarters in Hong Kong on 12 June 2019. Tens of thousands of protesters paralysed central Hong Kong, blocking major roads in a defiant show of strength against government plans to allow extraditions to China. Picture: AFP

HONG KONG, China – Hong Kong was braced for another mass rally Sunday as public anger seethed following unprecedented clashes between protesters and police over an extradition law, despite a climbdown by the city's embattled leader in suspending the bill.

Organisers were hoping for another mammoth turnout as they vowed to keep the pressure on chief executive Carrie Lam, who paused work on the hugely divisive bill Saturday after days of mounting pressure, saying she had misjudged the public mood.

Critics fear the Beijing-backed law will tangle people up in China's notoriously opaque and politicised courts and damage the city's reputation as a safe business hub.

The city was rocked by the worst political violence since its 1997 handover to China on Wednesday as tens of thousands of protesters were dispersed by riot police firing tear gas and rubber bullets.

Lam stopped short of committing to permanently scrapping the proposal Saturday and the concession was swiftly rejected by protest leaders, who called on her to resign, permanently shelve the bill and apologise for police tactics.

Jimmy Sham, from the main protest group the Civil Human Rights Front, likened Lam's offer to a "knife" that had been plunged into the city.

"It's almost reached our heart. Now the government said they won't push it, but they also refuse to pull it out," he told reporters.

'RESTORE CALM TO THE COMMUNITY'

On Sunday afternoon, protesters are set to march from a park on the main island to the city's parliament - a repeat of a massive rally a week earlier that organisers said more than a million people attended.

Lam's decision to ignore that record-breaking turnout and press ahead with tabling the bill for debate in the legislature on Wednesday then triggered fresh protests, which brought key parts of the city to a standstill and led to violent clashes with police.

Opposition to the bill united an unusually wide cross-section of Hong Kong, from influential legal and business bodies to religious leaders, as well as Western nations.

Suspending the bill has done little to defuse simmering public anger. The protest movement has morphed in recent days from one specifically aimed at scrapping the extradition bill to a wider display of anger at Lam and Beijing over years of sliding freedoms.

"We remain an enclave of human rights and civil liberties at the footsteps of a country whose leadership do not share our values or beliefs," lawmaker Dennis Kwok told local broadcaster RTHK ahead of Sunday's rally.

Lam had been increasingly isolated in her support for the bill, with even pro-Beijing lawmakers distancing themselves from the extradition proposals in recent days.

The Chinese government said suspending the bill was a good decision to "listen more widely to the views of the community and restore calm to the community as soon as possible".

'KEEP THE HEAT ON'

Critics were also angry that Lam missed repeated opportunities to apologise for what many saw as heavy-handed police tactics to disperse protesters who surrounded the city's legislature.

Police said they had no choice but to use force to meet violent protesters who besieged their lines outside the city's parliament on Wednesday.

But critics - including legal and rights groups - say officers used the actions of a tiny group of violent protesters as an excuse to unleash a sweeping crackdown on the predominantly young, peaceful protesters.

"The pro-democracy group will not stop at this point, they want to build on the momentum against Carrie Lam," political analyst Willy Lam told AFP. "They will keep the heat on and ride the momentum."

Anger has also been fanned by Lam and senior officers calling the street demonstrators "rioters".

Protest leaders have called for police to drop charges against anyone arrested for rioting and other offences linked to Wednesday's clashes.

Lam has argued that Hong Kong needs to reach an extradition agreement with the mainland, and says safeguards were in place to ensure dissidents or political cases would not be accepted.

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