Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam said Tuesday that a controversial bill that has spurred sometimes violent protests in the territory in recent weeks "is dead," and apologized again for causing public anger by mishandling it.
But Lam stopped short of referencing the bill's "complete withdrawal," which protesters are demanding even though she has suspended the bill indefinitely, and she reiterated her intention to stay on as the territory's leader.
Her remarks are seen as her latest bid to calm the public following weeks of protests that have drawn millions of people for mass marches and occasionally turned violent as some protesters clashed with police and stormed government buildings.
(Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam)
[Photo courtesy of news.gov.hk]
The legislation, which would allow the transfer of fugitives to the mainland China, has sparked fear that Chinese authorities might use it to crack down on pro-democracy activists and critics of the Communist Party-led Beijing government.
"The bill is dead," Lam told reporters ahead of a Cabinet meeting on Tuesday, one month since the June 9 mass march against the bill that organizers say drew 1.03 million people out on the streets in central Hong Kong.
"The cause of all these grievances and confrontations is an exercise to amend the Fugitive Offenders Ordinance. I have almost immediately put a stop to the amendment exercise," she said.
"But there are still lingering doubts about the government's sincerity, or worries whether the government will restart the process in the Legislative Council. So I reiterate here, there is no such plan."
Even though the government has made it clear that it will let the bill expire at the end of a legislative session in July next year, protests have continued, calling for its complete withdrawal.
Some protesters stormed the Legislative Council on July 1 and ransacked its chamber, prompting the government to pledge to pursue those responsible for breaking into the building and committing vandalism there.
Lam on Tuesday spurned protesters' demand for pardons to protesters who broke the law, saying, "Any demand that we should...not follow up on investigations and prosecutions of offenders is not acceptable."
On an inquiry protesters are calling for into a June 12 protest during which police are alleged to have used excessive force against protesters, Lam said a police watchdog, the Independent Police Complaints Council, will finish and release a report on the shortcomings of police action in six months.
She accepted her responsibility for introducing the bill to the legislature but dismissed protesters' demand that she resign over it.
"I fully understand that the responses of the government may not have fully met the wishes of the people. I just want to reiterate that this has nothing to do with my own pride or arrogance."
"For having caused such a storm by failing to assess the political sensitivity (of the bill amendment work,) we are extending our sincere apology."
"My sincere plea is please give us an opportunity, the time, the room for us to take Hong Kong out of the current impasse, and try to improve the current situation."
The bill seeks to allow the return of fugitives to jurisdictions with which Hong Kong has no extradition deal, such as mainland China and Taiwan.
It has attracted opposition among many Hong Kong residents amid fears it could severely undermine the former British colony's judicial independence and its semiautonomous status.
Foreign governments have also expressed concerns that their citizens could be extradited when traveling or staying in Hong Kong.
Andrew Li, the first chief justice of Hong Kong since its handover to Chinese rule in 1997, said in an opinion piece published in local newspapers Tuesday that the government should withdraw the bill to help reconcile with the people and set up a truth-seeking independent inquiry.
"There is no doubt the government made a serious error of political judgment," Li said. "They misjudged the mistrust which the people of Hong Kong have of the mainland legal system."
"A commission of inquiry into recent events, led by a judge, is a much more effective mechanism for ascertaining the truth," he said, while noting that the government-preferred investigation by the Independent Police Complaints Council "cannot be as effective as" a commission of inquiry.
While impressed by the peaceful and orderly protests, Li said unlawful and violent behavior expressed by those who stormed the legislature must be strongly condemned by all and having the chief executive grant amnesty for protesters at this stage would be inconsistent with the rule of law.
Amnesty International said Lam's gesture will only further inflame the situation in Hong Kong, while urging withdrawal of the extradition bill and an independent probe in the alleged excessive use of force by police.
"The excessive use of force by police on 12 June was a violation of international law and standards," it said in a statement. "Police officers responsible, including senior officers in command on 12 June, must face justice."
China, meanwhile, has strongly criticized the U.S. government for meeting with Hong Kong media mogul and democracy advocate Jimmy Lai.
"Hong Kong matters are China's internal affairs. Any form of interference by any foreign powers or individuals is wrong and attempts to cause chaos in the Hong Kong special administrative region are doomed to fail," Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said in Beijing.
According to the U.S. State Department, Secretary Michael Pompeo met on Monday with Lai to discuss "developments related to amendments to Hong Kong's Fugitive Offenders Ordinance and the status of Hong Kong's autonomy."
Lai also met with Vice President Mike Pence.