Hong Kong protesters stage peaceful rallies calling for 'liberation'





By Jessie Pang

HONG KONG (Reuters) - Hundreds of black clad pro-democracy demonstrators chanted "Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times" outside the High Court on Wednesday as a leading activist appeared to appeal a six-year jail sentence for rioting in 2016.

The court's walls were scrawled with graffiti reading: "History will absolve us", "If we burn you burn with us" and "No turn back 4HK".

The Chinese-ruled financial hub is struggling to recover from a weekend of violent clashes between police and tens of thousands of protesters, with parts virtually cut off due to a paralyzed metro that was a target of vandalism amid four months of often violent unrest.

Scores of shops were boarded up after also being trashed or torched, and more protests are expected in coming days. Some streets were littered with broken glass and twisted metal debris.

On Wednesday night, some 200 protesters staged a shopping mall demonstration in the New Territories district of Ma On Shan. The peaceful rally saw protesters sitting or standing and chanting "Stand with Hong Kong, fight for freedom".

The protests began in opposition to a now withdrawn extradition bill that would have allowed suspects to be sent to China, but have broadened into a pro-democracy movement amid fear that Beijing is undermining Hong Kong's freedoms.

Britain returned Hong Kong to China in 1997 under a "one country, two systems" formula, which gives it wide-ranging autonomy and freedoms not enjoyed on the mainland.

The unrest is the worst political crisis 1997 and the biggest challenge to Chinese President Xi Jinping since he came into power in 2012.

Edward Leung, 27, one of the leaders of a movement advocating independence from China, and two other activists in 2016 received the harshest sentences handed down to pro-democracy leaders since 1997.

In his appeal, Leung's lawyer argued his sentence was disproportionate to his offence, citing other more violent protesters receiving lighter sentences. His case was adjourned on Wednesday ahead of judgment.

Outside the court, hundreds of protesters wore black masks in defiance of colonial-era emergency laws banning face coverings, which were brought in on Friday to quell the unrest but which have incited more violence.

Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam on Tuesday did not rule out asking China, which has troops in barracks in Hong Kong, for help to end the unrest, with Hong Kong's economy hit hard and facing its first recession in a decade.


SHOPPING MALL PROTEST

Many malls closed early to prevent protesters gaining entry.

Inside the mall in Ma On Shan seven protesters, one in a wheelchair, held up signs reading: "Support security guards who are dedicated to their job, strongly condemn police abusing power and arresting people randomly."

A night earlier, security guards in the same mall tried to stop police entering to chase a protester. Media said the guards were arrested.

A slew of international events and conferences due to be held in the city have been canceled, with the organizers of the Hong Kong Squash Open the latest, stating they were postponing the event "in view of the current situation".

More than 200 shops and public utilities had been damaged in the weekend's violent clashes. More than 100 restaurants have closed in the past month, putting around 2,000 people out of work, a representative from an association of catering professionals told public broadcaster RTHK.

Authorities have described protesters as "militant activists", but many Hong Kong residents are also angry at the emergency powers, fearing their civil rights could be eroded.

More than 2,300 people have been arrested since June, while two teenagers have been shot and wounded in skirmishes with police. Scores of people, including police, have been injured.

Hong Kong's unrest has started to affect global companies and sport, with luxury jeweler Tiffany & Co and U.S. sports brand Vans withdrawing an advertisement and shoe design seen as favoring protesters.

China has canceled broadcasting NBA basketball games after an executive of the U.S. National Basketball Association team the Houston Rockets backed protesters in a tweet. Chinese sponsors and partners have cut ties with the NBA.

The NBA's business in China is worth more than $4 billion, according to Forbes.

"Every American has the right to voice their support for democracy and human rights for Hong Kong. Full stop," said one-time U.S. presidential candidate and former First Lady Hillary Clinton on her official Twitter account on Wednesday.

In a separate case, a top online gamer from Hong Kong who showed support for the protests was removed from an international tournament he won, forcing him to forgo prize money that media reports put at $10,000.

Blizzard Entertainment, via their brand Hearthstone, said the gamer, identified as "Blitzchung", had violated rules and would not be allowed to play in any Hearthstone e-sports games for the next 12 months.

China has warned foreign governments to stay out of the protests which they deem as an "internal affair" and have accused some, including Britain and the United States, of fanning anti-China sentiment.

Pakistan on Wednesday reaffirmed its commitment to Hong's Kong's "one country, two systems", said China's foreign ministry, after Pakistan Prime Minster Imran Khan met Premier Li Keqiang in Beijing.

"The Pakistan side reiterated that affairs of Hong Kong were China's internal matter and all countries should uphold international law and basic norms of non-interference in internal affairs of other countries," the ministry said in a statement.


(Reporting by Twinnie Siu, Donny Kwok, Marius Zaharia and Jessie Pang; Writing by Farah Master and Michael Perry; Editing by Paul Tait and Alex Richardson)

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