HONG KONG - Prosecutors in Hong Kong have charged 44 people with rioting following an unauthorized protest Sunday that led to a violent confrontation with police.
Those arraigned Wednesday included an airline pilot, a teacher, a nurse and a couple who were carrying an injured teen when they were arrested. The defendants face up to 10 years in prison if convicted. One defendant failed to appear in court, so the magistrate in Eastern District Court issued a warrant for that person's arrest.
Each defendant stands accused of joining the standoff that unfolded after officials refused to allow the protesters to march in Hong Kong Island’s western district. The event was billed as an action against gangs of people who recently beat dozens of people in a suburban town as bystanders begged police for help. The protesters called for an independent investigation into claims that police used excessive force at demonstrations.
Wearing masks and holding umbrellas, demonstrators blocked a road in a commercial district. Some protesters held wooden shields and hurled bricks while others made barricades using bamboo poles and road signs.
For hours, police pushed back the crowd and fired multiple rounds of tear gas and sponge bullets. Dozens of injuries were reported.
At the courthouse, a few protesters acknowledged that they stood in the roadway that night, a few meters from the front line. When tear gas canisters landed at their feet, some people panicked and ran, causing others to trip in the crush to get away. Police caught several of those who fell.
Hectar Pun, a lawyer for several defendants, said during a break that the protesters’ actions did not merit such serious charges. “The only allegation is the police asked them to go, and they didn’t go,” he said.
One couple, days from their wedding, stayed out that night to treat gassed protesters with saline solution. They were carrying an injured 16-year-old when the three were arrested, said the couple’s lawyer, Taylor Li.
Hong Kong has been on edge for two months, starting when many residents demanded that the government kill legislation that would have allowed criminal suspects to be extradited to mainland China. Silence from Chief Executive Carrie Lam, along with police use of rubber bullets and beatings with batons to disperse the crowds, altered the protest demands. As residents called for greater democratic voting rights and an independent investigation into policing methods, more people turned to increasingly dangerous and provocative tactics.
The announcement of the charges prompted more clashes with police. Hundreds of protesters surrounded a police station on Tuesday night, leading to physical fights with officers. One commander, who said his helmet had been snatched off, aimed a rifle directly at protesters. On Wednesday, hundreds of protesters, wearing the campaign’s colors of all-black attire, chanted for hours outside the courthouse on Hong Kong island’s eastern side. A photographer captured the image of some protesters attacking a police van.
The defendants were released on bail of about $127 USD and required to report to their neighborhood police station. They were told to relinquish their passports. Most were given curfews.
Johnson Yeung, 27, a longtime civil rights activist, attended the hearing to support those inside. He, too, was arrested on Sunday, as he crossed a footbridge in another neighborhood, encountered riot police, and was charged with obstruction of an officer.
The government’s decision to lodge riot charges, he said, won’t dissuade people who are willing to confront police, he said. Yeung said the government is "just provoking people to do more stuff. …They may use more innovative ways to get around the accusation of illegal assembly."
Some friends of those charged said the prosecutions would not stop the accused from fighting in the streets.
“No,” said Milly, a 25-year-old who works in sales. “Never.”