Young activist Edward Leung Tin-kei, the face of Hong Kong’s independence movement, was jailed for six years on Monday for his role in one of the city’s worst outbreaks of civil unrest in decades, in what appeared to be the second most severe punishment handed down to a protester in recent times.
Sentencing the 27-year-old former student leader, Madam Justice Anthea Pang Po-kam described the riot that rocked the busy shopping district of Mong Kok on February 8 and 9, 2016, as “an organised violence” that was “extremely serious” in nature. Carried out by a mob with a bitter aim to “revenge”, she said, the riot was not something that could be mitigated by one’s political aspiration, as Leung’s lawyers had suggested.
“Before the court of law, there are only the law-abiding ones and the lawbreakers,” she said, adding that the court would not allow people to resort to violent acts in the name of pursuing social and political causes. “If not, the court would send a wrong message to the public that those fed up with the government could resolve matters with violence.”
The length of Leung’s sentence is second only to that given to his co-defendant in the same case, Lo Kin-man, 31, who was jailed for seven years.
Lauren Faith Lau, 18, from International Christian Quality Music Secondary and Primary School, described the sentence as "harsh but vital".
"I am sympathetic towards the Occupy movement, but I think people need to draw a line between the Mongkok riots and Occupy Central." She said the side-effect of there being less people joining social movements is "unfortunate" but that preserving discipline is important as well.
Since the pro-democracy Occupy protest in 2014, various activists – including the movement’s poster boy, Joshua Wong Chi-fung – had been put behind bars for various offences arising from protests of different scales. Some protesters convicted over their roles in the Mong Kok riot in earlier trials were jailed for more than four years, but none received a jail term as lengthy Leung or Lo’s.
At the start of the trial, Leung had also pleaded guilty to assaulting a police officer. Lo was found guilty of one count of rioting, and his seven-year jail term was the most serious sentence for all the riot defendants who had come before the court so far. A third defendant, Wong Ka-kui, 27, who pleaded guilty at the start of the trial to one count of rioting, was jailed for 3½ years.
During the trial, prosecutors described how the night of chaos began on Portland Street with what appeared to be a scuffle between government hawker control officers and street vendors. Very quickly the clash escalated into a violent stand-off in which protesters hurled objects at police, who resorted to pepper spray to disperse the crowd.
Streets were set on fire, and bricks, wooden crates and a string of other items were launched by protesters. Two warning gunshots were fired at one point by a police officer trying to save an unconscious colleague. Prosecutors said protesters also wreaked havoc on nearby Argyle, Shantung and Fa Yuen streets.
On Monday, the judge said protesters were seen putting on masks and arming themselves on the night, indicating that the unrest was organised, which necessitated “a deterring sentence”. “It was in large scale and was extremely serious,” she said, referring to how about 500 people converged at the busy Portland Street during the first night of the Lunar New Year. The combination of the location and the festive date, she said, made the situation all the more dangerous.
The judge said Leung had remained in the area despite being warned repeatedly by police to leave. Then, he took part in another outburst of violence at Argyle Street, where protesters threw bricks, rubbish bins, and wooden crates at unarmed traffic police officers.
Leung admitted physically assaulting a police sergeant by kicking and hitting him with a wooden board at the site. Lo was spotted throwing various objects at police officers when he was at the Portland Street at least 11 times.
Citing past cases from both the courts in Hong Kong and Britain, Pang said the three should also be punished not just for their own culpability but for the criminal behaviours the crowd engaged in that night. Leung’s defence counsel, Edwin Choy Wai-bond SC, said his client was considering whether to lodge an appeal against the sentence. “From our point of view, it is not a light sentence at all,” he said.
Faces from across the pan-democratic camp, including Wong and Alex Chow Yong-kan, who led the Occupy protest, as well as former lawmaker Sixtus Baggio Leung Chung-hung, appeared in support of Edward Leung.
Former lawmaker “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung said: “Simply put, it is a politically motivated judgment and revenge on those who put up resistance since the umbrella momvement in 2014,” he said. In mitigation earlier, Choy said his client had expressed remorse and never shirked his responsibility for the night’s events. He said Leung acted in what he thought was the city’s interest.
Instead, it was Hong Kong’s older generation – complacent about their lives despite stalled democratic development in the city – who had shied away from their responsibilities, Choy said.
Hong Kong’s former governor Chris Patten expressed concerns about Leung’s sentencing as he hit out at the city’s Public Order Ordinance, which he had once sought to revamp. Leung had been convicted of rioting under the ordinance on the basis that an event was a riot if an “unlawful assembly” led to “a breach of the peace”.
“We attempted to reform the Public Order Ordinance in the 1990s and made a number of changes because it was clear that the vague definitions in the legislation are open to abuse and do not conform with United Nations human rights standards,” Patten said.
His effort was eventually reversed by the Provisional Legislative Council set up by the Chinese government in 1997, the year when Britain returned Hong Kong to China. “It is disappointing to see that the legislation is now being used politically to place extreme sentences on the pan-democrats and other activists,” the former governor added.
Nice, a top barrister who led the UN trial of former Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic, also expressed concerns about the use of extreme sentences as a deterrent. “I met Edward in 2017 and was struck by his articulate, gentle, personable character as well as his youth … I am quite unable to see that Edward’s actions warrant him spending formative years of his life in jail,” Nice said. “The sentencing today, clearly designed as a deterrent to mute further protest, will not help this bright, able and penitent young man, who deserves a second chance.”
British MP Fiona Bruce, who chairs the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission, said Leung’s sentencing should not been seen as an isolated case but one of the many examples of the Hong Kong government “using the law to intimidate the pro-democracy movement and curtail freedom of expression”.
“It is shocking that one in three pro-democracy legislators and more than 100 protesters have been prosecuted by the government since the umbrella movement of 2014. This is an unacceptable crackdown which has a chilling effect on the pro-democracy movement, forcing people into self-censorship and silencing opposition,” she said.