HONG KONG—A top opposition leader imprisoned on public disorder charges was released on bail on Aug. 15 as Hong Kong’s government attempts to quell a protest movement that has paralyzed parts of the territory, including its international airport, and led to hundreds of arrests.
Benny Tai was sentenced to 16 months in April in the trial of nine leaders of a 2014 drive for universal suffrage known as the Umbrella Movement. He was allowed to return home on $12,755 bail but was barred from leaving Hong Kong and will have his appeal heard in late February, according to the court.
The 2014 movement fizzled, its demands ignored by Hong Kong’s Beijing-backed administration and its leaders arrested. However, it laid the groundwork for the new protest movement that began in June with mass opposition to extradition legislation but has since encompassed more sweeping democratic demands.
Flights at Hong Kong’s airport have mostly resumed after being halted by mass demonstrations and spasms of violence on Monday and Tuesday. Police made five arrests Tuesday night and 17 more on Wednesday during clashes outside police stations in the Sham Shui Po district.
This week’s clashes highlighted the hardening positions of pro-democracy protesters and the authorities, which show no sign of abating as long as the government continues to refuse calls for dialogue. Along with scrapping the extradition bill, under which criminal suspects could be tried in mainland China, and critics say, face torture and an unfair justice, protesters are demanding an investigation into alleged police abuses and other steps, with some calling also for the resignation of Chief Executive Carrie Lam.
That’s also having an effect on what is already a difficult economic situation for the financial services and export hub, with the forecast for economic growth for the year downgraded from 1 percent to 0 percent, city Financial Secretary Paul Chan announced Thursday.
“Domestically, the recent social incidents have hit the retail trade, restaurants and tourism, adding a further blow to an already weak economy, and also affected the international image of Hong Kong,” Chan said.
A total of 29 countries have issued travel safety alerts for Hong Kong, while international credit rating agencies have also expressed concern about the situation in the territory, he said.
“The incentives of tourists traveling to Hong Kong and of businessmen abroad operating business and investing in Hong Kong have been affected,” Chan said.
While the movement’s supporters plan street protests for the weekend, it’s unclear what their next move is.
More than 700 protesters have been arrested since protests began in early June. Police and the government have pledged to bring all “culprits” to justice and to take “relentless enforcement action to bring the persons involved to justice.”
Hong Kong airline Cathay Pacific said it had canceled 272 flights, affecting more than 55,000 passengers, and had fired two pilots in an apparent response to their involvement in activity related to the pro-democracy protests. They included one pilot who is “currently involved in legal proceedings.” The airline said earlier this week one of its pilots has been charged with rioting after being arrested during a protest.
It said the second fired pilot “misused company information,” but gave no other details. The Hong Kong Free Press reported the pilot posted a photo of a cockpit screen on an online forum used by protesters.
The protests and airport disruptions are being fed in large part by frustrations among many Hong Kong residents over what they see as an increasing erosion of the freedoms they were promised in 1997 when Communist Party-ruled mainland China took over what had been a British colony under the framework of “one country, two systems.”
China began by censoring all news of the protests, but has in recent days taken to denigrating the protesters as criminals being manipulated by the United States, Taiwan and other unnamed foreign powers.
However, human rights groups, foreign governments and many members of the U.S. Congress have expressed concern over the events in Hong Kong.