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Hong Kong’s police are facing fresh allegations of brutality after a riot cop was filmed ripping off a politician’s protective goggles to fire pepper spray in his face from close range — but they’re not apologizing for it.
Widely circulated footage from a major rally on New Year’s Day showed the masked officer pulling goggles from the head of Ted Hui, a representative of the Democratic Party on Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, then spraying him as the lawmaker tried to shield himself. When the politician picked his goggles off the ground and put them back on, the officer tore them off and sprayed him once again, driving the lawmaker back against a shopfront before another policeman pulled his colleague away.
At the time of the incident, Hui — who has been a regular presence appealing for calm on the frontlines of protests — had been urging police to show restraint during the first pro-democracy protests of the year.
The incident has caused outrage among Hong Kongers, with many describing it as a blatant example of the heavy-handed police approach during months of protests in the semi-autonomous Chinese city. But at a press conference Thursday, police defended the officer’s actions, saying that Hui was practicing “passive resistance” in refusing to leave the area when instructed.
“He displayed passive resistance and kept on arguing. Our colleague warned him that pepper spray would be used to disperse him,” Senior Superintendent Kong Wing-cheung told reporters.
“He was wearing a pair of goggles — we don’t know if that was the reason he wasn’t afraid of our pepper spray. That’s why our colleague pulled off his goggles and used pepper spray to make the dispersal operation more effective.”
Kong added that he couldn’t understand why Hui couldn't follow a simple instruction to return to the pavement.
But that excuse didn’t wash with many Hong Kongers, who pointed out that Hui was already standing on the pavement at the time, and claimed he had been targeted for his pro-democratic views.
Hong Kong writer Kong Tsung-gan tweeted that Hui had routinely played the role of peacemaker at protests, and that the officer’s heavy-handed response was “political.”
“Hui is a Legislative Council member; his role at protests is to calm things down. This police behavior is unacceptable in any situation but toward Hui it’s a political act.”
Lo Kin-hei, vice-chair of the Democratic Party, said Hui had done nothing wrong. “I think he is absolutely legit to wear eye mask to protect himself,” he said, while barrister Alvin Yeung, leader of the pro-democracy Civic Party, told Hong Kong broadcaster RTHK that he believed the officer’s actions could amount to assault.
Hong Kong-based China analyst Sari Arho Havrén said the incident showed “how broken the system” in Hong Kong had become.
“Imagine police pepper spraying an MP in any European democracy. And here it’s done without any consequences,” she tweeted.
Hui did not respond to VICE News’ requests for comment Thursday, but reportedly told a South China Morning Post reporter: “If the police can do that to a lawmaker, god knows what will they do to citizens.”
The clash took place during Wednesday’s huge march by Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement, which police cut short after clashes broke out. The Civil Human Rights Front, which organized the march, claimed that more than a million people took to the streets, while police said there were about 60,000.
Police said they arrested about 400 people during the march — one of the largest numbers of arrests in a single day since the protests began — and said they had no choice but to use tear gas after protesters began throwing objects at police lines.
Police brutality has been a core grievance of Hong Kong’s protest movement, and an investigation by Amnesty International released in September accused police of reckless and indiscriminate violence against protesters.
This article originally appeared on VICE US.