Pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong on Wednesday hit out at the city's government for condemning the appearance of placards advocating independence during a new-year protest march, saying that freedom of speech is enshrined in the territory's mini-constitution, the Basic Law.
The protesters had "ignored the advice of security guards" and carried the banners into Civic Square outside the east wing of government headquarters at the end of the march, the government said in a statement after the march.
Scuffles around the placards had caused "confusing and two security guards falling on the ground," it said, banning any "activities advocating or promoting" independence for Hong Kong from the area.
It said a pro-independence activist had later addressed the rally, "undermining the constitutional order of [Hong Kong]" and expressed "deep regret" that the Civil Human Rights Front, which organized the traditional Jan. 1 protest march to government headquarters, hadn't prevented this from happening.
But Jimmy Sham of the Civil Human Rights Front said it wasn't the group's job to police the content of demonstrations.
"The Civil Human Rights Front won't become an accomplice in the government's suppression of human rights," Sham said, calling on chief executive Carrie Lam to remember her negative popularity ratings in opinion polls.
"The people [of Hong Kong] don't recognize her as chief executive, and the Jan. 1 march was just the start," he said. "We will be doing everything we can in future to encourage people to break out of their feelings of helplessness, and to stand up together for Hong Kong people's values."
Sham's response was echoed by one participant at Tuesday's march.
"Independence for Hong Kong is an entirely legal, reasonable and acceptable position," the protester said.
And pro-independence student activist Wayne Chan said the placards weren't obviously pro-independence, however, and that the security guards had done nothing to prevent people waving the British colonial-era flag of Hong Kong from entering Civic Square.
"They never said why the two [contested] placards were pro-independence," Chan told RFA. "The way they approached it was extremely inappropriate, and the whole rally could have finished up smoothly and peacefully if they hadn't placed those barriers there, which made no sense."
Hong Kong was promised the continuation of its existing freedoms of press, publication and association, as well as a separate and independent judiciary, under the terms of its 1997 return to Chinese rule, within the "one country, two systems" framework agreed between British and Chinese officials and enshrined in its mini-constitution, the Basic Law.
But the city's freedom and autonomy are now being eroded in the wake of repeated interventions in the city’s political life by Beijing, according to overseas governments and human rights organizations.
Nine Hong Kong politicians have been barred from candidacy in elections in the city in recent years, while six pro-democracy LegCo members were stripped of their seats when Beijing's parliament ruled their oaths of allegiance invalid.
Reported by Lee Wang-yam for RFA's Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.