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Hong Kong braces for big crowds at annual rally to mark handover

Anne Marie Roantree

HONG KONG, July 1 (Reuters) - Hong Kong holds an annual pro-democracy march on Monday, the anniversary of its handover to Beijing, that could draw big crowds amid widespread anger over an extradition bill that has plunged the financial hub into turmoil.

The bill, which would allow people to be sent to mainland China to face trial in courts controlled by the Communist Party, has hit a nerve across society, drawing criticism from business people, legal circles, schools and church groups.

Millions have taken to the streets in recent weeks to protest against the now-suspended extradition law to demand it be scrapped, and that embattled Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam step down.

The uproar over the bill has reignited a protest movement that had lost steam after pro-democracy demonstrations in 2014 failed to force concessions from Beijing, and led to the arrests of hundreds of activists.

In recent years, the July 1 anniversary of the handover of the former British colony in 1997, under a deal to ensure its autonomy, has been marked by deepening despondency about what many residents see as increasing meddling by the mainland and the erosion of freedoms.

Beijing denies interfering but for many Hong Kong residents the extradition bill is the latest step in a relentless march towards mainland control.

Organisers of the recent protests say they are confident that anger over the city government's failure to withdraw the extradition bill will boost numbers on Monday, which is a public holiday in Hong Kong.

Financial markets and most businesses will be closed.

The rally is due to start at 0630 GMT in Victoria Park on Hong Kong island and end at government offices near the heart of the financial centre.

The recent demonstrations have brought havoc, forcing the closure of government offices on several occasions and triggering chaos as protesters blocked roads and besieged police headquarters.

The South China Morning Post cited unidentified sources as saying about 5,000 riot police would be ready for any trouble.

Beijing-backed leader Lam, who has apologised for the upheaval, has not been seen in public since June 18.

GOVERNMENT SUPPORT

The turmoil comes at a delicate time for Beijing, which is grappling with a trade dispute with the United States, a faltering economy and tensions in the South China Sea.

Lam, in her decision to suspend the bill, said she had heard the people "loud and clear". But she stopped short of activists' demands to scrap the bill altogether, and rejected calls to step down.

Activists are also demanding the government drop charges against those arrested during the protests, charge police with what they describe as excessive use of force and stop referring to the demonstrations as a riot, a term that can bring a heavier jail sentence.

But the embattled city government does have support.

Thousands of people rallied to back the police on Sunday, in heavy rain and sweltering heat of around 33 Celsius (91.4 Fahrenheit).

Some people waved the Chinese national flag.

Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule on July 1, 1997, under a "one country, two systems" formula that allows freedoms not enjoyed in mainland China, including freedom of protest and a much-cherished independent judiciary.

Opponents of the extradition bill see it as a threat to the rule of law and fear it would put them at the mercy of China's justice system where human rights are not guaranteed.

The turnout at the handover anniversary rally in 2018 was one of the lowest ever, after the opposition lost steam, with organisers saying about 50,000 people turned up. Police put the number at 9,800. (Additional reporting by Jessie Pang and Felix Tam, Editing by Robert Birsel)