|Protesters march during a rally against a controversial extradition law proposal in Hong Kong. (Photo: AFP/Dale De La Rey) |
Protesters hurled bottles and used metal barricades as police moved in on a small group who had vowed to stay outside the legislature overnight, an AFP reporter on the scene said.
At least one police officer could be seen with blood streaming down his face.
The melees began shortly after midnight following a day that had seen a huge peaceful protest make its way through the city without incident.
Organisers said more than a million people marched in blazing summer heat through the cramped streets of the financial hub's main island on Sunday in a noisy, colourful demonstration calling on the government to scrap its planned extradition law.
Small groups of young protesters had planned to stay outside the city's legislature until Wednesday when the extradition bill is due to have its second reading.
But police moved in on them after their permission to protest expired at midnight.
Within minutes scenes of chaos unfolded as protesters fought with officers who were soon backed by riot police.
Live television images showed officers deploying pepper spray hoses to push the crowds back.
The scenes were reminiscent of 2014 when police used tear gas to disperse pro-democracy demonstrators outside the same building, sparking public anger and setting off two months of demonstrations that took over key intersections of the international finance hub.
Police strongly condemned the violence carried out within the Legislative Council. In a late Facebook post, police said the protesters had deliberately caused damage to properties within the vicinity. They added that it was illegal for the protesters to gather once the deadline for the public rally had expired.
Sunday's outpouring was already raising the pressure on the administration of Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam and her official backers in Beijing.
"She has to withdraw the bill and resign," veteran Democratic Party lawmaker James To told crowds gathering outside the city's parliament and government headquarters on Sunday night.
"The whole of Hong Kong is against her."
After To spoke, thousands were still arriving, having started the march five hours earlier, filling four lanes of a major thoroughfare.
Some sat in a nearby park singing "hallelujah", but on a nearby road tensions were building after hours of peaceful protest.
Riot police armed with batons and helmets were gathering while government-funded broadcaster RTHK reported that they used pepper spray on six masked men trying to block the road.
Lam had yet to comment on the rally and the future of the bill, which is due to be debated in the Legislative Council on Wednesday and could be passed into law by the end of June.
Lam has tweaked the amendments but refused to pull the bill, saying it is vital to plug a long-standing "loophole".
The demonstration capped weeks of growing outrage in the business, diplomatic and legal communities, which fear corrosion of Hong Kong's legal autonomy and the difficulty of ensuring basic judicial protections in mainland China.
US and European officials have issued formal warnings - concern matched by international business and human rights lobbies that fear the changes would dent Hong Kong's rule of law.
The former British colony was handed back to Chinese rule in 1997 amid guarantees of autonomy and various freedoms including a separate legal system, which many diplomats and business leaders believe is the city's strongest remaining asset.
The unusually broad opposition to the rendition bill displayed on Sunday came amid a series of government moves to deepen links between southern mainland China and Hong Kong.
Chants of "no China extradition, no evil law" echoed through the highrise city streets as marchers snaked through the Causeway Bay and Wanchai shopping districts, while marchers called for Lam and other senior officials to step down.
Some carried yellow umbrellas - a symbol of the pro-democracy Occupy protests that choked key city streets for 79 days in 2014.
One protester held a sign reading "Carry off Carrie", while another declared "Extradite yourself, Carrie". Another sign said "let's make Hong Kong great again", with a photo depicting US President Donald Trump firing Lam.
The genial crowd included young families pushing babies in prams as well as the elderly braving 32 degree Celsius heat, some spraying each other with water misters.
Opposition to the bill has united a broad range of the community, from usually pro-establishment business people and lawyers to students, pro-democracy figures and religious groups.
Insurance agents, executives and small entrepreneurs joined bus drivers and mechanics in the streets on Sunday. Dozens of people told Reuters it was their first protest march, with some remarking on the strong sense of unity among the diverse crowds.
"I come here to fight," said a wheelchair-bound, 78-year-old man surnamed Lai, who was among the first to arrive.
Schoolteacher Garry Chiu joined the protest with his wife and 1-year-old daughter, saying, "It is no longer about me."
"I need to save my daughter. If the law is implemented anyone can disappear from Hong Kong. No one will get justice in China. We know there are no human rights," Chiu added.
"The extradition bill will directly threaten the core values of Hong Kong and rule of law," said 21-year-old Kelvin Tam, a student in London. "It will remove the firewall of Hong Kong judicial independence."
Protests against the bill were also planned on Sunday in 26 cities globally, including London, Sydney, New York and Chicago.
The amendments would simplify case-by-case arrangements to allow extradition of wanted suspects to jurisdictions, including mainland China, Macau and Taiwan, beyond the 20 with which Hong Kong already has extradition treaties.
Opponents of the bill question the fairness and transparency of the Chinese court system and worry about Chinese security forces contriving charges.
Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong, said on Thursday the bill would "strike a terrible blow ... against the rule of law, against Hong Kong's stability and security, against Hong Kong's position as a great international trading hub".
Foreign governments have also expressed concern, warning of the impact on Hong Kong's reputation as an international financial hub, and noting that foreigners wanted in China risk getting ensnared in Hong Kong.
Concerns were highlighted on Saturday with news that a local high court judge had been reprimanded by the chief justice after his signature appeared on a public petition against the bill.
Reuters reported earlier that several senior Hong Kong judges were worried about the changes, noting a lack of trust in mainland courts as well as the limited nature of extradition hearings.
Human rights groups have repeatedly cited the alleged use of torture, arbitrary detentions, forced confessions and problems accessing lawyers in China.
Hong Kong officials have defended the plans, even as they raised the threshold of extraditable offences to crimes carrying penalties of seven years or more.
They say the laws carry adequate safeguards, including the protection of independent local judges who will hear cases before any approval by the Hong Kong chief executive. No one would be extradited if they face political or religious persecution or torture, or the death penalty, they say.
"We continue to listen to a wide cross-section of views and opinions and remain to open to suggestions on ways to improve the new regime," a government official said on Sunday.