By UPI |

Hong Kong protest: Council delays reading of controversial bill as protesters clog streets near legislature

June 12 (UPI) -- Thousands of protesters outside the Legislative Council in Hong Kong forced lawmakers Wednesday to postpone the second reading of a controversial extradition bill that has tensions on high on the island.

Lawmakers were scheduled to have a second reading of a bill that would allow for some criminal suspects to be turned over to Communist Party-controlled courts in mainland China at 11 a.m. but the Legislative Council said in a brief statement that it would be postponed to "a later time" as protesters choked streets around the building demanding for the law to be withdrawn while creating piles of bricks extracted from sidewalks near the site.

Protests began over the weekend with organizers claiming over a million people demonstrated against the proposed law and for the resignation of Chief Executive of Hong Kong Carrie Lam. Police estimated 240,000 were in attendance at the protest's peak.

Lam has insisted that the bill, titled Fugitive Offenders and Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters, will pass as soon as possible, with a final vote expected as early as this week, South China Morning Post reported.

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On Tuesday, the council announced that it would temporarily close a so-called designated demonstration area around the Legislative Council Square while police were told to stand by and patrol the area "to deal with any untoward incidents."

However, many of the protesters had begun gathering near the legislature Tuesday night.

Hong Kong, a former British Colony returned to China in 1997, is allowed to keep its own local institutions under the "one country, two systems" arrangement and protesters see this bill as a whittling away of the city's autonomy.

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Pro-Beijing politicians on the island, however, see the bill as a preventative measure against the city becoming a safe haven for fugitives from mainland law, despite current laws allowing for the extradition of suspects accused of financial crimes and corruption.

The U.S. State Department said Monday that it has concerns over the law, stating its "lack of procedural protection in the proposed amendments could undermine Hong Kong's autonomy and negatively impact the territory's longstanding protections of human rights, fundamental freedoms and democratic values."

Elizabeth Shim contributed to this report.

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