Hong Kong counter-terrorism police admit to disguising themselves to nab protesters

Experts say undercover operation legal, but charging suspects tricky.

Jason Fan | August 13, 2019, 02:39 PM

The Hong Kong police has admitted to using an elite squad of police officers to go undercover as anti-government protesters to carry out arrests.

According to South China Morning Post, these undercover officers would infiltrate the demonstrations, and coordinate with riot police to make surprise arrests.

They are members of a special counter-terrorism division, known as "the raptors".

The unit was first set up during the 2014 Occupy movement in Hong Kong, commonly known as the Umbrella Revolution.

Some 15 protesters were arrested in such a decoy operation in Causeway Bay on Sunday, Aug. 11.

Men dressed like protesters making arrests

News footage showed two men in black, the colour worn by the protesters, helping a police officer subdue a suspect.

One of the men wore a yellow helmet -- gear that is also often used by protesters to protect themselves.

Several men dressed in black and wearing face masks were seen holding batons, standing behind riot police.

When asked by journalists whether they were officers, the press were told to wait for a response from the Police Public Relations Branch.

In a separate footage by another news outlet, two men dressed as protesters were approached by journalists and asked if they were plain-clothes policemen.

The pair maintained their silence and boarded a white minibus.

Undercover operation only targeted violent rioters

Deputy Commissioner of Police Tang Ping-keung insisted that the undercover officers were only deployed to target extremely violent rioters.

He claimed that these rioters used deadly force, including the use of slingshots and petrol bombs.

The decoy operation was necessary to prevent harm to police officers or members of the public.

He also emphasised that the police officers involved still have to abide by the law, just as in any other undercover operation.

Not illegal, but charging them could be tricky

However, observers are questioning the legality of these actions.

Some pointed out that it would have been difficult for the undercover officers to have gained the trust of the protesters without actually partaking in the violence.

Others pointed out that the undercover officers did not produce warrant cards during the arrest operation.

Legal experts have also weighed in on the situation.

A veteran criminal barrister said that the Hong Kong Police Force's undercover approach was acceptable, as it was not illegal under common law.

He also cited examples of Western nations using the tactic of masquerading as protesters or lawbreakers to obtain evidence.

On the other hand, a law lecturer at the University of Hong Kong said that charging the suspects arrested during this operation could prove tricky.

They cannot be charged with obstruction or assaulting officers, since these charges require those arrested to be aware that they were dealing with police officers.

What else is happening?

On Monday, Aug.12, thousands of protesters occupied Hong Kong International Airport and staged a sit-in.

Airport authorities had to cancel all flights in and out of the city.

This was in response to incidents of supposed police violence over the weekend.

While the airport resumed operations on Tuesday, Aug. 13, many flights are still cancelled, and the public have been advised to cancel non-essential travel out of the city.

Protesters have also stated that they plan to return to the airport in the afternoon on Tuesday, Aug. 13, to resume their demonstrations.

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Top image from Hong Kong Free Press.