HONG KONG: Hong Kong police used pepper spray and arrested 80 people Tuesday as they moved to clear a city street blocked by pro-democracy demonstrators for nearly two months.
Officers in helmets, with some carrying batons, faced off against dozens of protesters at the site in Mongkok district, the scene of some of the most violent clashes since the sit-ins began at three separate intersections in the city on September 28.
A police spokeswoman said officers used a “pepper-based solution” that is similar to the pepper spray used by officers at times in recent weeks.
“I couldn’t open my eyes,” a demonstrator surnamed Mok told Agence France-Presse. “I was wearing long sleeves but my arms are hurting.”
“You are already participating in an illegal assembly, right now the police order you all to immediately disperse,” officers told protesters over loudspeakers before firing the liquid at them from raised metal platforms.
Demonstrators, who are are protesting against China’s restrictions on who will be allowed to stand in the city’s 2017 leadership elections, donned goggles or raised umbrellas to protect themselves.
The police spokeswoman told Agence France-Presse 80 people had been arrested as of Tuesday evening. They were detained for criminal contempt of a court order requiring the clearing of the street, for assaulting police and for unlawful assembly.
The arrests began earlier in the day when some protesters refused to leave after workers tore down their barricades on Argyle Street in Mongkok.
Among those arrested was veteran lawmaker Leung Kwok-hung. The youngest detainee was a 14-year-old boy, said a lawyer working for the protesters.
“I am not going to move. I will let them arrest me,” 78-year-old Ng Pun-tuk, wearing a helmet, told Agence France-Presse earlier as he joined the crowd of protesters watched by dozens of bailiffs and more than 100 police.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to achieve democracy. I am prepared to go to jail,” said Ng.
The Mongkok site is the second area to be partially cleared since the high court in the semi-autonomous Chinese city granted injunctions to let authorities start dismantling sections of the protest camps.
The court injunction for Tuesday only covered Argyle Street, and police are expected to begin clearing neighboring Nathan Road, a busy thoroughfare, on Wednesday morning, reports said.
The student-led protests have at times drawn tens of thousands of people onto the streets over the last two months. But the crowds have shrunk as the movement has struggled to maintain momentum and commuters have grown weary of transport disruptions.
The spectacle of a small group smashing up a glass door side entrance to the city’s legislature last week — in protests that have otherwise been remarkable for their orderliness — has further sapped public support.
A Hong Kong University poll of 513 people last week found that 83 percent of respondents want the road blockades to end.
China insists candidates in 2017 must be vetted by a loyalist committee — an arrangement that protesters say will ensure the election of a pro-Beijing stooge.
Talks between protesters and senior Hong Kong officials a month ago were fruitless, with students accusing the government of failing to make any meaningful offers.
“I haven’t completely closed the door on negotiations with the Hong Kong Federation of Students,” the city’s second highest official, Chief Secretary Carrie Lam, told reporters Tuesday during a trip in Beijing.
“I really hope that we could all sit down… to talk about the future of Hong Kong’s political development.
“If student representatives can concretely negotiate a mechanism where they leave voluntarily, we would welcome it,” Lam said.
On Tuesday last week, government workers dismantled metal barricades blocking access to a skyscraper opposite the government headquarters on the edge of the sprawling main protest camp in the central district of Admiralty.