Authorities deny covering up death at Prince Edward station as rumors stubbornly persist

Screengrab via Facebook/RTHK.
Screengrab via Facebook/RTHK.

The authorities today made a coordinated effort to put to rest persistent rumors that as many as three protesters were beaten to death by police during a heavy-handed clearance operation at at Prince Edward MTR station on Aug. 31, while still declining to release CCTV footage from the night as protesters have demanded.

Representatives of the police, fire services, the Hospital Authority, and the MTR Corp held a joint press conference to categorically deny the stubborn speculation about the alleged deaths, which continue to light up social media and serve as a source of public rage, even in the apparent absence of any substantiating evidence.

Prince Edward has become a flashpoint in recent days since riot police stormed into the station and began beating and pepper spraying protesters and commuters on the platform and even inside a train. The ferocity of the action, and the fact that reporters were shooed away from the station — not to mention the soaring levels of mistrust directed at police after months of protests — fueled rumors that someone had died in the melee.

The tenacity of the rumor, even in the face of official denials, has led to protesters gathering at Prince Edward repeatedly to demand the MTR release CCTV footage from the night to prove the matter one way or the other — and the entrance to the station has even been transformed into a makeshift memorial display.

In the minutes leading up to today’s press conference, the railway operator released a series of stills from its CCTV cameras inside the station from the 31st, as well as a timeline of events.

The images released by the railway operator show crowds of people on a platform, riot police running through the station, and ambulance staff at the scene, but don’t show any images of police interacting with or apprehending protesters.

When asked by reporters why the railway operator didn’t release video footage, Sammy Wong, the MTR’s chief of operating said that three of the cameras inside the station had been defaced or damaged, and claimed the operator was protecting the privacy of passengers.

“We understand that the public would like to know more information about that incident,” he said, but “at the same time, there are also concerns about the privacy issues, because of privacy data contained in the CCTV footage which affects many [members] of the traveling public.

“So we strike the balance between the two. We tried our best to dig out from the CCTV footage and work out a time sequence, time stamps and screen captures for the public to understand [what happened] and to address their concerns.”

Senior police superintendent Yolanda Yu, meanwhile, stressed that no missing persons reports had been filed and that no deaths had been reported.

“The Hong Kong government, MTR Corp, and different departments have clarified repeatedly it is totally false. There is certainly no death. Certain people spread such malicious comments to slander the government and to stir up grievances in society,” she said.

When asked why reporters were barred from the station that night, Yu said the decision had been made out of concern for journalists’ safety.

Fifty-three people were arrested at Prince Edward MTR station on the night of Aug. 31, including seven people taken to hospital for treatment.

Senior Manager of the Hospital Authority Andy Kung stressed that no deaths were reported in the incident, and that the injured have since been discharged from hospital.

The attempt to quell the rumors came after Chief Executive Carrie Lam urged people to be wary of fake news online — a pitfall that even government advisers may not be immune to — and encouraged citizens to take allegations of unlawful behavior to the proper authorities rather than social media.

But given the unprecedented collapse in trust between the public and police, that may prove to be a tall order, and the reaction to today’s joint press conference was skeptical to say the least, with netizens still clamoring for the CCTV footage from the station. As of this evening, “Prince Edward Station” was trending on Twitter and rumors of the deaths were persisting.

“CCTV may not be able to tell what did happen on 831. But we need it!” one user said. “Tell us the truth. Any death? Police brutality? No press were allowed to get in #PrinceEdward mtr platform.”

One post pointed to a thread on LIHKG that purported to show firefighters at the MTR station 20 minutes earlier than they reported entering, suggesting it was evidence of firefighters “ignoring” officers beating protesters to death — deaths they claimed were “now mostly confirmed.”

“It’s a cover up, that’s what,” another user firmly asserted. “Even the CCTV footage of 721 Yuen Long station terrorist attack can be published but not 831 Prince Edward station? Obvious and Ridiculous #PoliceBrutality killed someone.”

Broadcaster RTHK recently released what is perhaps the most comprehensive effort to sort fact from fiction regarding the Prince Edward incident, finding over the course of their investigation that police’s use of force raised serious questions, but uncovering no evidence that anyone was killed in the chaos.

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