Hong Kong police treatment of detained people has amounted to torture in some cases, according to a report from a human rights group, which cited 45 testimonies claiming unreasonable treatment by officers.

The Civil Rights Observer, a local organisation which monitors the police, said on Tuesday that interviewees alleged they were subjected to mistreatment which – at times – violated international human rights law and domestic regulations.

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The report, titled Policing protests in Hong Kong: torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, detailed instances of severe assault, excessive use of force, sexual harassment, verbal humiliation, threats of violence, and delayed access to medical or legal assistance while under police control.

Among those surveyed, 24 alleged they were verbally abused by policers while 13 claimed they were subjected to “excessive force.” Fifteen reported they had been denied immediate medical care and 16 said they received delayed access to a lawyer. There were also 13 who claimed “severe assault or injuries” at the hands of law enforcement.

The alleged incidents occurred during months of citywide unrest, originally over a now-withdrawn extradition bill, that spiralled into an all-out political crisis over the city’s dwindling freedoms. Countless were injured during protester street battles with police, prompting a chorus of international criticism over a perceived lack of accountability.

Police have repeatedly maintained that officers are “duty-bound” to use the appropriate amount of force when confronted with illegal activity. The Independent Police Complaints Council is expected to release the findings of its investigation into last year’s event soon. HKFP has contacted the force for comment.

Physical assault

The Civil Rights Observer also presented seven anonymised testimonies as case studies of police abuse – two of which involved serious physical assault.

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One man alleged he was surrounded by 15 tactical squad officers and beaten around his “finger joints, arm, pelvis, thigh and head repeatedly” with batons. In detention, officers reportedly made him ingest hard objects and told him to swallow any vomit. During his arrest, he also claimed police planted a brick among his belongings, made him crouch with his head close to his thighs for around 15 minutes and repeatedly yelled at him.

Another man said that while subdued, police pushed on his neck for around 15 to 50 seconds until he could not breathe, rendering him nauseous. Officers also reportedly shone a light into his eye at close range for around 15 seconds and said: “If I do this to you for a minute, you will become blind.”

Other testimonies detailed alleged instances of officers grabbing detainees’ genitalia, body searches deviating from guidelines and forcing a detainee to unlock his phone.

The watchdog said that it was not possible to “fully determine” whether each interviewee was a protest participant or acting as a social worker, observer, journalist or first-aider.

The findings will be shared with the United Nations and international civil society groups, it added.

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The group’s co-founders Icarus Wong and Andrew Shum appealed to authorities to probe complaints of police misconduct in a joint statement.

“We urge the Hong Kong government to establish a fully independent police complaints mechanism, to initiate investigations on acts of torture or ill-treatment, to duly prosecute the perpetrators with appropriate punishment and to provide full redress to the victims,” they said.

Meanwhile, on Wednesday, three UN special rapporteurs – Clement Nyaletsossi Voule, David Kaye and Mary Lawlor – urged Hong Kong authorities to drop the criminal prosecution of 15 leading pro-democracy activists, arrested last month in connection with allegedly “organising and participating in unlawful assemblies.”

“Nobody should be subjected to administrative or criminal sanctions for taking part in a peaceful protest, even if the regime governing protests requires an authorisation,” the experts said in a joint statement.

The 15 are set to appear in court next Monday.

Jennifer Creery is a Hong Kong-born British journalist, interested in minority rights and urban planning. She holds a BA in English at King's College London and has studied Mandarin at National Taiwan University.