NEW DELHI: For several months, the streets of Hong Kong have simmered with discontent, with protesters wearing masks and carrying black umbrellas numbering in the hundreds of thousands. As the protests entered the twelfth week, police fired tear gas and baton charged protesters, arresting 36 people - the youngest aged just 12.

Harrowing images and videos of police officials charging and beating protesters have since emerged, with officials justifying the high handedness on grounds that the protests turned violent. Protesters, however, say that police may be in cahoots with violent mobs, and are planting ‘evidence’ on peaceful protesters to falsely charge them with rioting.

The protests were sparked by opposition to a controversial extradition bill, but have since snowballed into a wider anti government movement.

The Citizen spoke to residents and protesters in Hong Kong, who say that while the government maintains the status quo on the extradition bill, the Hong Kong police is responding brutally to peaceful protesters. “The HK police is completely losing control, and HK citizens are facing terrorism,” Becky, a 23 year old Hong Kong resident told The Citizen.

“[Recently] there were indiscriminate killings in Yuen Long, North Point, Tsuen Wan and also Tseung Kwan. The Hong Kong police did nothing to stop them [the perpetrators]. They only keep arresting activists, even those who just crossed the road to help a young girl. I think the citizens are extremely mad with the police and government, that’s why such a large march was held last Sunday. In fact, we discovered that police were pretending to be protesters. They were dressed in black, wearing anti-gas masks, but could enter the police station,” Becky told The Citizen.

The charge that police personnel are pretending to be protesters - inciting mob violence and arresting genuine protesters under the pretext of that violence - was made independently by a protester The Citizen spoke to, who wants to remain anonymous. “On July 21, mobs in white t-shirts grabbed weapons and attacked citizens at a train station; even the press was attacked. The police was called but they did not arrive until 39 minutes later. Only 28 people were arrested under unlawful assemblies, but are yet to be prosecuted,” she told The Citizen - implying police collusion in the violence. “The press filmed police officers going into the local village that the mobs had escaped to after the attack, and the atmosphere between them [the police and the violent mob] wasn’t hostile at all.”

“On August 5, there was another protest in the area. Some people wore red t-shirts and were armed, and attacked the black t-shirt protesters. Rumours sat that some of those red shirts were actually from [mainland] China,” she told The Citizen. “The same night, another group took out knives and attacked young people.”

She drew a comparison between the lack of government action against groups of violent perpetrators and the high handedness directed toward peaceful protesters. “The arrest and prosecution of those attackers seems to have made no progress, even as they [police/ government] are super efficient when it comes to [targeting] protesters.”

“Protesters are getting angry, and think the police are ‘black cops’ - who cooperate with violent mobs instead of catching them… Actually in our point of view they send officers dressed like protesters and suddenly arrest them without telling them they are police,” she told The Citizen.

“[At recent protests], people were afraid of the police trapping them again, so they were very aware of anyone doing suspicious things like taking pictures of protesters faces,” she said, referring to increasing suspicion of the authorities on the part of protesters. The protest on August 24 was called to oppose the government’s installation of smart lamp posts equipped with sensors, closed-circuit cameras and data networks. The government said that the lamp posts were installed to detect air quality, traffic and weather data, but protesters say they are surveillance tools.

“[Recently] after two Chinese were caught by protesters at a protest at the airport, they were very suspicious. Netizens searched their background and found that one was a police personnel in China. The second one claimed to be a reporter, but there’s no proof of his press identity,” the protester added. Some videos of the Hong Kong police making arrests, seem to show police personnel being assisted by undercover officers dressed as protesters.

Earlier this month, video footage emerged that showed officers putting sticks in a protester’s rucksack - fuelling the charge that police were planting evidence on peaceful protesters. The police denied the allegation, saying the suspects had dropped the sticks and during the chaos officers just put them back after they had fallen on the ground.

Protesters have disputed the government’s classification of the protests as a ‘riot’ - which gives the police indiscriminate powers and permits the use of batons and tear gas, allowing the police to detain and arrest protesters.

“Police are abusing their power,” a 32 year old Hong Kong resident, who wishes to remain anonymous, told The Citizen.

Faced with police repression, protesters continue to gather - pushing for their political demands which include the complete withdrawal of the now suspended extradition bill – under which individuals can be sent to China for trial – the setting up of an independent body to investigate police violence, and the free election of Hong Kong’s leaders and legislature. “China is known for being unfair and they tend to abuse their power to protect the government. That’s why if suspects are extradited to China, we’re afraid they’ll face unfair trials. It could also be used as a weapon against political dissidents and even foreign nationals,” a protester, Mark Musette, told The Citizen.

“Despite all the protests and violence, the government has not changed its stance at all,” Hong Kong residents Sarah and Eric told The Citizen.

For more information and a timeline of events, see here.

Cover Photo: Reuters