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article imageHong Kong Occupy protest leaders turn themselves in to police

By Dennis Chong (AFP)     Dec 3, 2014 in World

The founders of Hong Kong's pro-democracy Occupy movement surrendered to police Wednesday in a symbolic move, as they try to take the protests off the streets after more than two months of rallies punctuated by violence.

Dozens of supporters, carrying yellow umbrellas that have become a symbol of the movement and shouting "I want true democracy without fear!", surrounded the trio as they turned themselves in at a central police station.

But Benny Tai, Chan Kin-man and Chu Yiu-ming quickly emerged from the station, saying they had not been arrested despite admitting "participating in unauthorised assembly".

"We have not been arrested so we are allowed to leave with no restriction on our liberty," said Tai.

He told AFP there were "political considerations" behind their swift release to avoid crowds flocking to the protest zones, but said it was inevitable they would eventually be arrested.

Original founders of the pro-democracy Occupy movement  Chu Yiu-ming  Chan Kin-man and Benny Tai sur...
Original founders of the pro-democracy Occupy movement, Chu Yiu-ming, Chan Kin-man and Benny Tai surrender to police in Hong Kong on December 3, 2014
Johannes Eisele, AFP

Washington meanwhile gave its strongest backing yet to the protesters, calling for "competitive" leadership elections for the semi-autonomous Chinese city.

"The legitimacy of Hong Kong's chief executive will be greatly enhanced if the promise of universal suffrage is fulfilled," the top US diplomat for Asia, Daniel Russel, told US lawmakers.

"This means allowing for a competitive election in which a range of candidates with differing policy approaches are given an opportunity to seek the support of eligible Hong Kong voters."

China insists that candidates for the vote in 2017 must be vetted by a loyalist committee, which demonstrators say will ensure the election of a pro-Beijing stooge.

- 'Illegal occupation' -

Student leaders (L-R) Prince Wong  Isabella Lo and Joshua Wong speak to the media at the pro-democra...
Student leaders (L-R) Prince Wong, Isabella Lo and Joshua Wong speak to the media at the pro-democracy movement's main protest site in Hong Kong's Admiralty on December 3, 2014
Johannes Eisele, AFP

The three Occupy leaders were joined in their "surrender" by 82-year-old Cardinal Joseph Zen, a prominent pro-democracy supporter, while 40 others also waited outside the police station to fill out forms to turn themselves in.

"This is for the fortune of the next generation," said secondary school teacher April Fan, 55.

Police said Wednesday afternoon that 24 people had so far surrendered.

"They were explicitly told by the interviewing officers that illegal occupation of public places was an unlawful act and they should stop such act immediately," a statement said.

"Police will conduct follow-up investigations based on the information provided."

Protesters poured onto the streets on September 28 demanding political reforms, blocking three major junctions across the financial hub.

Police use batons against pro-democracy protesters near the government headquarters in the Admiralty...
Police use batons against pro-democracy protesters near the government headquarters in the Admiralty district of Hong Kong on December 1, 2014
Dale de la Rey, AFP

One site has since been cleared by police, but the main protest camp outside government headquarters in central Hong Kong still blocks a long stretch of a multi-lane highway.

A third smaller site blocks a busy road in the Causeway Bay shopping district.

The founders' "surrender" and their call to end the road blockades follow violent clashes between protesters and police outside government headquarters late Sunday, which left dozens injured.

Tai said the Occupy movement would now take a different approach to promoting democracy, including through education and a new social charter.

- 'Pain for justice' -

China refuses to budge on the issue of candidate screening, and Hong Kong's current leader Leung Chun-ying has warned that the protests are "in vain".

On Wednesday Leung rejected a call made by three students on hunger strike for a relaunch of the constitutional reform process.

"Expressing views on constitutional reform through illegal and confrontational means is bound to be futile," his office said in a statement.

The protests drew tens of thousands at times during their first weeks, but public support has waned amongst residents grown weary of the ongoing traffic disruption. A survey last month showed 83 per cent of respondents want the road blockades to end.

Anti-Occupy demonstrators outside the police station swore and held up placards of the three Occupy founders in striped jail uniforms.

"Support the government to enforce the law!" they shouted, and "Eat shit!"

Analyst Sonny Lo said the Occupy trio were handing themselves in to "reignite" the movement by regaining the moral high ground.

"They are trying to turn public opinion back from a low point," he said, adding that by opening themselves to legal charges they were hopping to gain renewed public sympathy.

Despite the Occupy call to retreat, the student protesters on hunger strike vowed they would continue "suffering pain for justice".

Teenage protest leader Joshua Wong and two fellow students, who began fasting late Monday, read out their emotional open letter to Leung from their tent outside government headquarters.

"We believe we are doing better by suffering pain for justice than you are by having big meals," they said in the letter, renewing calls for dialogue on political reform.

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