Hong Kong’s Evolving Protests: Voices From the Front Lines

On a recent sweltering Saturday, a day now reserved for protest in Hong Kong, a demonstrator named Wayne stepped past a row of plastic barricades, lifted a pair of binoculars and squinted.

Four hundred meters away, a line of riot police stood with full-length shields, batons and tear gas launchers.

It was a familiar sight for Wayne after more than two months on the front lines of Hong Kong’s turbulent pro-democracy demonstrations. Along with hard hats and homemade shields, face-offs with police have become part of the 33-year-old philosophy professor’s new normal.

The stories of Wayne and three other self-described “front line” protesters interviewed by The Associated Press provide insights into how what started as a largely peaceful movement against proposed changes to the city’s extradition law has morphed into a summer of tear gas and rubber bullets. They spoke on condition they be identified only by partial names because they feared arrest.

The movement has reached a moment of reckoning after protesters occupying Hong Kong’s airport last week held two mainland Chinese men captive, beating them because they believed the men were infiltrating their movement.

In the aftermath, pro-democracy lawmakers and fellow demonstrators — who have stood by the hard-liners even as they took more extreme steps — questioned whether the operation had gone too far.

It was the first crack in what has been astonishing unity across a wide range of protesters that has kept the movement going. It gave pause to the front-liners, who eased off the violence this past weekend, though they still believe their more disruptive tactics are necessary to get the government to answer the broader movement’s demands.

The demands grew from opposing legislation that would have allowed Hong Kong residents to be extradited for trials in mainland China’s murky judicial system to pressing for democratic elections, Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam’s resignation and an investigation into allegations of police brutality at the demonstrations.

The protesters on the front lines are the ones who throw bricks at police and put traffic cones over active tear gas canisters to contain the fumes. They have broken into and trashed the legislature’s chambers, blocked a major tunnel under Hong Kong’s harbor, besieged and pelted police headquarters with eggs and halted rush-hour subways by blocking the train doors from closing.

To Lam, these are “violent rioters” bent on destroying the city’s economy. To China’s ruling Communist Party, their actions are “the first signs of terrorism.”

To these most die-hard protesters, there’s no turning back.

“The situation has evolved into a war in Hong Kong society,” said Tin, a 23-year-old front-line demonstrator. “It’s the protesters versus the police.”

When Hong Kong’s youth banded together for this summer’s protests, they established a few rules: They would not have clear leaders, protecting individuals from becoming symbols or scapegoats. And they would stick together, no matter their methods.

The peaceful protesters would not disavow the more extreme, sometimes violent tactics of the front-liners, who would distract the police long enough for others to escape arrest.

These were lessons learned from 2014, when the Occupy Central pro-democracy movement fizzled after more than two months without winning any concessions. Many involved feel internal divisions partly led to defeat.

Chong, a 24-year-old front-liner, said everyone’s opinion is heard and considered, and they decide on the right path together. But no decision is absolute: The demonstrators have pledged to not impede actions they may disagree with.

Two massive marches roused Chong and others who had given up on political change after the failure of Occupy Central, also dubbed the Umbrella Revolution.

On consecutive weekends in June, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets to oppose the extradition bill. It struck at fears that China is eroding civil rights that Hong Kong residents enjoy under the “one country, two systems” framework.

“I didn’t think I would ever do this again,” said Chong, who quit his job as an environmental consultant to devote himself to the protests. “But this time, society is waking up.”

On June 12, three days after the first march, protesters blocked the legislature and took over nearby streets, preventing the resumption of debate on the extradition bill. Police responded with tear gas and rubber bullets.

Lam suspended the bill indefinitely the day before the second march, but it didn’t mollify the protesters, who turned out in even greater numbers.

As their demands expanded, Lam offered dialogue but showed no signs of giving ground.

That’s when hard-liners like Chong and Wayne became convinced that peaceful protest might not be enough.

They blocked roads with makeshift barricades and besieged the Chinese government’s Liaison Office in Hong Kong, defacing the national seal over its entrance. Week after week, they clashed with police, who became an object of their anger. Every round of tear gas only seemed to deepen their conviction that the government did not care.

“We’ve had numerous peaceful protests that garnered no response whatsoever from the government,” said J.C., a 27-year-old hairstylist who quit his job in July. “Escalating our actions is both natural and necessary.”

Then came the “white shirt” attack. On July 21, dozens of men beat people indiscriminately with wooden poles and steel rods in a commuter rail station as protesters returned home, injuring 44. They wore white clothing in contrast to the protesters’ trademark black.

A slow police response led to accusations they colluded with the thugs. Police Commissioner Stephen Lo said resources were stretched because of the protests.

Many saw the attack as proof police prioritized catching demonstrators — around 700 have been arrested so far — over more violent criminals. That view has been reinforced by other images, including police firing tear gas at close range and a woman who reportedly lost vision in one eye after being hit by a beanbag round shot by police.

Each accusation of police brutality emboldens the hard-core protesters to use greater violence. Gasoline bombs and other flaming objects have become their projectiles of choice, and police stations are now their main target.

In this cauldron of growing rage, the protesters set their sights on Hong Kong’s airport.

Hundreds of flights were canceled over two consecutive nights last week as protesters packed the main terminal, blocking access to check-in counters and immigration.

While the major disruption of one of the world’s busiest airports got global attention, it was the vigilante attacks on two Chinese men that troubled the movement.

In a written apology the following day, a group of unidentified protesters said recent events had fueled a “paranoia and rage” that put them on a “hair trigger.” During the prior weekend’s demonstrations, people dressed like protesters had been caught on video making arrests, and police acknowledged use of decoy officers.

At the airport, the protesters were looking for undercover agents in their ranks. Twice they thought they found them.

The first man ran away from protesters who asked why he was taking photos of them. Protesters descended on him, bound his wrists with plastic ties and interrogated him for at least two hours. His ordeal ended only when medics wrested him away on a stretcher.

The second man was wearing a yellow “press” vest used by Hong Kong journalists but refused to show his credentials. In his backpack, protesters found a blue “Safeguard HK” T-shirt worn at rallies to support police.

A small group of protesters repeatedly beat him, poured water on his head and called him “mainland trash.” He turned out to be a reporter for China’s state-owned Global Times newspaper.

Footage of the mob violence inflamed anti-protester sentiment in China, where the reporter became a martyr. In Hong Kong, pro-democracy lawmakers said it was something that “will not and should not happen again.”

Within the movement, some apologized for becoming easily agitated and overreacting. Others questioned whether provocateurs had incited the violence.

Through it all, the front liners called for unity. They pointed to the injuries sustained on their side and the rioting charges that could lock them up for 10 years.

On the night of the airport beating, Wayne couldn’t get through the crowd to see what was happening, but he understood how the attackers felt.

“I would have done the same thing,” he said. “It’s not rational, but I would have kicked him or punched him at least once or twice.”

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Scores of Civilians Killed, Injured in Libyan Oasis Town

The United Nations reports the small oasis town of Murzuq in southwestern Libya has suffered one of the largest losses of civilian life this month since civil war broke out in 2011 following the overthrow of former Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi.

Escalating violence reportedly has killed at least 90 civilians and injured more than 200 in the small oasis town of Murzuq this month.  OCHA, the U.N. office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, reports airstrikes by planes and drones, indiscriminate rocket attacks and shelling, as well as ground fighting have increased the casualty count on all sides of the fighting.  

Additionally, the U.N. migration agency reports nearly 9,500 people have been displaced within the town municipality.  OCHA spokesman, Jens Laerke, told VOA people are fleeing from one area to another to get out of the way of aerial and drone attacks.

“They are, of course, terrified that if they move, they will be perceived as affiliated to one side or the other and may be targeted.  So, that is why our call really is for those doing the fighting to allow people to leave if they so wish so they can reach a place where they can be assisted and, of course, to spare civilians and civilian infrastructure,” Laerke said.

Murzuq is a casualty of the increasingly bitter and lethal fighting between two main armed political factions in Libya.  The self-styled Libyan National Army led by renegade General Khalifa Haftar raised the fighting to a higher level when his forces moved to seize the capital Tripoli in April.  That is where the Government of National Accord, which is recognized by the United Nations as the legitimate government of Libya, is based.

Laerke said Murzuq, a town of fewer than 13,000 people, is facing a humanitarian crisis.  He said people desperately need medical supplies, food, water and sanitation, tents, blankets and hygiene kits.

However, he said aid agencies have limited access to people displaced in the town.  He said active fighting, as well as damaged roads and roadblocks, are making it almost impossible to assist the civilians trapped there.

He added that it was easier to reach those who have taken refuge in the few centers for displaced people on the outskirts of the town.  U.N. aid agencies are appealing to the warring parties for unimpeded access to all victims of this manmade humanitarian disaster.

 

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Italian PM Conte to Resign After League Party Pulls Backing

Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte announced his resignation Tuesday, blaming his decision to end his 14-month-old populist government on his rebellious and politically ambitious deputy prime minister, Matteo Salvini.

Conte told the Senate that the surprise move earlier this month by Salvini’s right-wing League party to seek a no-confidence vote against the coalition was forcing him to “interrupt” what he contended was a productive government. He said that government reflected the results of Italy’s 2018 election and aimed to “interpret the desires of citizens who in their vote expressed a desire for change.”
 
The coalition included two rivals, the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement and Salvini’s euroskeptic, anti-migrant right-wing League party.
 
Conte said he will go later Tuesday to tender his resignation to President Sergio Mattarella. As head of state, Mattarella could ask Conte to stay on and find an alternative majority in Parliament. That is considered an unlikely scenario, however, given the long-festering acrimony among the coalition’s partners and the deep divisions in the opposition Democrats, who would be a potential partner.
 
Or, after sounding out party chiefs in consultations expected to start as soon as Wednesday, Mattarella could come to the conclusion that another political leader or a non-partisan figure could cobble together a viable government. That government’s pressing task would be to lead the country at least for the next few months, when Italy must make painful budget cuts to keep in line with European Union financial regulations.
 
Failing that, Mattarella could immediately dissolve Parliament, 3{ years ahead of schedule, as Salvini has been clamoring for. Pulling the plug on Parliament sets the stage for a general election as early as late October, right smack in the middle of delicate budget maneuvers that will be closely monitored in Brussels.
 
Conte, a lawyer with no political experience, is nominally non-partisan, although he was the clear choice of the 5-Stars when the government was formed.
 
The premier scathingly quoted Salvini’s own recent demands for an early election so he could gain “full powers” by grabbing the premiership. Conte blasted Salvini for showing “grave contempt for Parliament” and putting Italy at risk for a “dizzying spiral of political and financial instability” in the months ahead by creating an unnecessary crisis that collapses a working government.
 
Salvini, who sat next to Conte, smirking at times as the premier spoke, began the Senate debate by saying, defiantly, “I’d do it all again.”
 
Pressing for a new election as soon as possible, Salvini, who as interior minister has led a crackdown on migrants, said: “I don’t fear Italians’ judgment.”
 
In the European Parliament election three months ago in Italy, as well as in current opinion polls, Salvini’s League party has soared in popularity to be the No. 1 political force among Italians.

 

 

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Son, Brother of Outgoing Guatemalan President Cleared of Fraud

A Guatemalan court on Monday acquitted a son and a brother of outgoing President Jimmy Morales, after a corruption case that battered his popularity and sparked the leader’s feud with a United Nations-backed anti-corruption commission.

Samuel “Sammy” Morales, the president’s older brother and political adviser, had been on trial on suspicion of fraud and money laundering, while Jose Manuel Morales, the president’s eldest son, was facing fraud charges.

In January 2017, the Attorney General’s office and the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) accused both men of defrauding the land registry of $12,000 in 2013, using false invoices, before Morales was elected.

Samuel “Sammy” Morales, brother and political adviser of Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales, shakes hands with a person after being acquitted by a Guatemalan court on corruption charges, in Guatemala City, Guatemala, Aug. 19, 2019.

The case centered on invoices submitted by the mother of Jose Manuel’s then-girlfriend after she agreed to supply Christmas hampers to officials at the registry.

The woman sent the registry a bill made out in the name of a local restaurant for 564 breakfasts, not Christmas hampers, but witnesses said the breakfasts were never delivered.

Sammy Morales, who had faced up to 11 years in prison, said he helped obtain the invoice from the restaurant as a favor to his nephew, but denied it was fraudulent. Jose Manuel had faced a jail term of up to 8 years over the scandal.

The probe soured the commission’s relations with the president, and later in 2017, the CICIG tried to impeach Jimmy Morales, 50, for alleged campaign finance irregularities.

Unlike his imprisoned predecessor, Otto Perez, who was brought down by a separate CICIG corruption probe in 2015, the president survived a vote in Congress to strip him of immunity.

Morales, whose term in office will end in January, went on to accuse the CICIG of abuse of power, and vowed to expel the commission from the country. Morales succeeded in terminating the CICIG’s mandate, which will end in September.

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Planned Parenthood Pulls Out of Federal Grant Program

The country’s top reproductive services group, Planned Parenthood, is pulling out of a federal family planning program to avoid abiding by new Trump administration rules on abortion.

The new rule under the Title X program bans grant recipients from referring patients for abortion.

“We will not be bullied into withholding abortion information from our patients,” Planned Parenthood CEO Alexis McGill Johnson said. “Our patients deserve to make their own health care decisions, not to be forced to have Donald Trump or Mike Pence make those decisions for them.”

Planned Parenthood says its clinics will stay open, but they will have to scramble to make up the loss of federal grants.

Along with providing abortions, Planned Parenthood also provides patients access to birth control, testing for sexually transmitted diseases, cancer screening, infertility treatment, and other services. Many of its patients are low-income and minority women. McGill Johnson says they will be the ones to suffer most.

But a Health and Human Services statement says it is Planned Parenthood that is “abandoning their obligations” to their patients by choosing to reject the regulations for accepting grants.

A federal appeals court is considering whether to overturn the restrictions on abortion referrals.

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US Attorney General Shakes Up Prisons Bureau After Epstein Death

U.S. Attorney General William Barr on Monday announced a new leadership team at the federal Bureau of Prisons in a shake-up of the agency in the wake of financier Jeffrey Epstein’s apparent suicide inside a federal jail in New York City.

Kathleen Hawk Sawyer, a veteran of the Bureau of Prisons, will return to the agency to serve as its director, Barr said.

He named another former agency official, Thomas Kane, to serve as her deputy.

The Bureau of Prisons has about 37,000 employees and oversees 122 facilities, which house about 180,000 inmates.

Hugh Hurwitz, who has been serving as the bureau’s acting director – including when Epstein was found unresponsive over a week ago in a Manhattan jail cell – has been reassigned to his prior position within the agency.

Epstein had been arrested on July 6 and pleaded not guilty to federal charges of sex trafficking involving dozens of underage girls as young as 14.

An autopsy report released on Friday concluded he committed suicide by hanging.

His death at the age of 66 at the Metropolitan Correctional Center (MCC) in lower Manhattan triggered multiple investigations and had prompted Barr to criticize “serious irregularities” at the facility.

FILE – The Manhattan Correctional Center is seen in New York, July 1, 2019.

“During this critical juncture, I am confident Dr. Hawk Sawyer and Dr. Kane will lead BOP with the competence, skill, and resourcefulness they have embodied throughout their government careers,” Barr said in the statement.

Barr had previously ordered the reassignment of the warden at the MCC. Two corrections officers assigned to Epstein’s unit were placed on administrative leave pending investigations.

Lawyers for Epstein did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Monday.

His lawyers had said in a statement last week that they were “not satisfied” with the medical examiner’s conclusions and planned to carry out their own investigation, seeking prison videos taken around the time of his death.

FILE – This March 28, 2017, file photo, provided by the New York State Sex Offender Registry shows Jeffrey Epstein. Newly released court documents show that Epstein repeatedly declined to answer questions about sex abuse as part of a lawsuit. A…

Epstein had been on suicide watch at the jail but was taken off prior to his death, a source who was not authorized to speak on the matter previously told Reuters. Two jail guards are required to make separate checks on all prisoners every 30 minutes, but that procedure was not followed, the source added.

Epstein, a registered sex offender who once socialized with U.S. President Donald Trump and former President Bill Clinton, pleaded guilty in 2008 to Florida state charges of unlawfully paying a teenage girl for sex and was sentenced to 13 months in a county jail, a deal widely criticized as too lenient.

Senator Ben Sasse, the Republican chairman of the Senate Judiciary Oversight Subcommittee, has urged Barr to void the agreement and said “heads must roll” after Epstein’s death.

“This is a good start, but it’s not the end,” Sasse said of Barr’s announcement on Tuesday. “Jeffrey Epstein should still be in a padded cell and under constant surveillance, but the justice system has failed Epstein’s victims at every turn.”

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A Digital Setting For A Classical Violin Concert

Imagine listening to a violin concert in one of New York City’s majestic cathedrals or in the National Arboretum, surrounded by blooming magnolias. Now anyone can experience this exquisite scene with the use of VR glasses. A team of researchers from the University of Maryland at College Park came up with new immersive technologies that allow people from all over the world to experience performing arts in a breathtakingly beautiful setting without getting up from their couch. Nastassia Jaumen has the story.

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Startup Ideas, Courtesy of Government Labs: One Firm Connects Entrepreneurs With New Technology

Every day, cutting-edge research is being performed in government and university labs across the country. Tech transfer is the process of taking that research out of the lab and transforming it into a business. One company jump-starts the process by introducing entrepreneurs to that research. Tina Trinh explains.

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Sudanese Celebrate Signing of Political Agreement After Months of Protests

Sudan’s Transitional Military Council and opposition parties formally signed a political agreement this weekend after months of protests. Though many protesters are wary of the compromises made in the deal, the signing was marked by celebrations across the capital. In Khartoum, Esha Sarai and Naba Mohiedeen have more.

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Italy’s Salvini Tells Ship with 107 Migrants to Go to Spain

Seeking to end a humanitarian crisis, Spain says a Spanish rescue boat with 107 migrants in the southern Mediterranean can sail to Spain and disembark its passengers in Algeciras.

Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini on Sunday told the Open Arms ship to leave Italian waters and go to Spain. Salvini contends that Open Arms is anchored off the southern island of Lampedusa “just to provoke me and Italy.”

The boat’s crew says conditions on the ship are “miserable” 17 days since it rescued people off Libya. Six EU countries say they’ll take the migrants in, but Salvini hasn’t let the ship dock.

The Open Arms didn’t immediately say if would go to Spain, several days’ sailing away. The group says Salvini is using the 107 migrants for “xenophobic and racist propaganda.”

 

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