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Organizers say nearly 2 million marched in record Hong Kong protest

© Simina Mistreanu/dpa

Hong Kong (dpa) - Nearly 2 million people took to the streets of Hong Kong to rally against a controversial extradition bill on Sunday, organizers said, in the largest protest since the city returned to Chinese rule in 1997.

The figure was announced on Sunday night as thousands of people remained on the streets of Hong Kong, filling major highways and stopping traffic in the government district.

Sunday's protest is even larger than a similar one held last weekend when organizers estimated 1 million people marched against a bill that would allow for the extradition of suspected criminals to China.

Police said 338,000 participated on Sunday at the protest's peak along the original protest route.

University student Ryan Cheung, 19, said the reason for the high turnout was the "government's reaction" as well as an "arrogant" response from leader Carrie Lam to the protests, which have rocked Hong Kong for the past week.

"These incidents made the general public very angry. They think they have to fulfil their civic responsibility and fight for their freedom," he told dpa.

Cheung also thought many people were motivated by the death of a protester on Sunday night, who fell from scaffolding after hanging anti-extradition posters. His death has been classified by the Hong Kong police as suicide.

"Citizens think no one should be sacrificed for this event," said protester Jason Shih, 18.

Many protesters on Sunday carried white flowers in honour of the 35-year-old man and laid them close to where he fell.

Protests may continue into Monday as organizers the Civil Human Rights Front called for a strike if the bill is not permanently retracted and leader Lam steps down.

Lam, who has personally championed the bill, was the target of much of Sunday's march, with protesters shouting slogans like "Carrie Lam, step down!"

In an unprecedented move, Lam apologized to protesters on Sunday for her handling of the contentious bill.

She also suspended the bill in another surprise turn on Saturday, after a week of protests, but refused to revoke it. That only served to anger the crowds, who expected her to withdraw the bill completely.

"What Carrie Lam did made most of us completely furious," said Laurie Wen, a 48-year-old writer.

Although the government said it lacked a timetable to restart discussions on the bill, Wen said protesters could not take the chance that she would put the legislation back on the table once the air cleared.

Many were also angered by the police use of rubber bullets, tear gas and pepper spray on young protesters and students earlier this week after they surrounded the legislature to prevent the bill's second reading.

"We tried to express our ideas in a polite way," said Eric Lam, a 33-year-old marketing specialist. "She didn't listen. We had no option but to escalate our protest."

Exasperation at the extradition bill has united Hong Kong in a way not seen since the 2014 pro-democracy protests, as many feared it was a sign the city was losing its autonomy to China.

Many residents have said they fear China's legal system, which has a reputation for a high conviction rate, political prosecutions, forced disappearances and indefinite detention. Hong Kong, by contrast, has one of the most respected legal systems in Asia.

"We simply have no faith in the one country, two systems" policy that offers Hong Kong a semi-autonomous status until 2047, said protester Eric Lam. "We think in 10 years all the rules and laws will be aligned with China. As young people, we don't see a future in Hong Kong."

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