Hong Kong police charge two among 28 held over Yuen Long attack

HONG KONG (The Straits Times/ANN) - Duo held after metro station assault on protesters in July charged with rioting

Hong Kong police said they have charged two of 28 people arrested for a bloody attack in a rural metro station that left scores injured.

Both men, aged 48 and 54, were charged with rioting and will make their first appearance in a magistrate's court today, Chief Superintendent Tse Chun-chung announced at a regular news conference yesterday.

Hong Kong has been plunged into political turmoil since June with mass protests over a since-suspended extradition Bill that have now evolved into demands for greater democratic reforms.

On July 21, a mob of men dressed in white and armed with sticks and clubs stormed the Yuen Long metro station, attacking protesters returning from a pro-democracy rally, and other commuters.

The incident left at least 45 people injured, some severely.

Police came under heavy criticism for what was seen as their delayed response, with officers arriving at the scene nearly 40 minutes after the attack was launched and fuelling rumours of collusion with those behind the violence.

Yuen Long is part of the New Territories, a largely rural area close to the Chinese border where a number of villagers are known to have ties to triads and are supportive of the pro-Beijing establishment.

Hong Kong's police chief defended officers, saying there had been a need to redeploy manpower from other districts. At the time, police and protesters had been locked in pitched street battles in the Sheung Wan district some 30km away.

But many saw the attack as proof that police were prioritising catching demonstrators - around 700 have been arrested so far - over more violent criminals.

It also marked a turning point in the protests, observers say.

After July 21, protesters started directing their anger at the police, even targeting police stations and quarters during the protests, said Mr Antony Dapiran, author of City Of Protest: A Recent History Of Dissent In Hong Kong.

"Did that normalise violence? Maybe it helped to justify more violence on the protesters' side," he told The Straits Times.

For several weeks after, tear gas and rubber bullets became a regular fixture at protests as police tried to disperse an increasingly brazen crowd which threw projectiles such as rocks and glass bottles, and even improvised petrol bombs.

Trust in the police force, facing unprecedented challenges on the streets, plummeted to an all-time low after the Yuen Long incident.

This trust will probably take decades to be restored, said Chinese University of Hong Kong senior lecturer Ivan Choy, noting that it took nearly 20 years for the force to shake its reputation for being corrupt. "They have now acquired a reputation for being 'black cops' (a reference to them being in cahoots with the triads). You can't just expect people to change their perception overnight," he said, noting that police actions have raised more questions than provided answers.

Some, like events planner Thomas Lam, 32, felt it was unjust that only two people had been charged with involvement in the attack. He also noted that it had taken nearly a month - far longer than for protesters, who were often brought to court within days of their arrest.

"There were so many people there that night, how come just 28 were arrested and only two have been charged?" Mr Lam asked.

Meanwhile, hundreds of high school students wearing black and holding umbrellas in the oppressive heat thronged a square in downtown Hong Kong yesterday to rally for political reforms.

Tonight, the movement's supporters plan to form human chains across the city, inspired by a similar event 30 years ago in the Baltic states, when hundreds of thousands of Lithuanians, Latvians and Estonians joined together to mourn the loss of independence to Soviet rule.

• Additional reporting by Claire Huang

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