A Hong Kong court will hear the case of a newlywed couple and a 16-year-old charged with rioting in March, making them the first group of pro-democracy protesters to face trial.

Police said on Monday that 956 people have been formally prosecuted in relation to the protests, while the total arrest figure surpassed 6,000. Protesters convicted of rioting could face up to 10 years behind bars under the colonial-era Public Order Ordinance.

elaine to henry tong court
Henry Tong and Elaine To arriving at the court.

While hundreds of arrested protesters have appeared in court since June, the case involving Elaine To, Henry Tong and Natalie Lee will be the first to enter the trial phase, as all three have pleaded not guilty.

The trial is scheduled for March 6 to 20, with prosecutors saying they will summon 11 witnesses and adduce three to four hours of video evidence.

To, Tong and Lee were arrested near Des Voeux Road West in Sheung Wan on July 28. Defence lawyers previously told the court that To and Tong were trying to help Lee to her feet when the trio was arrested by riot police.

Aside from being charged with one count of rioting, To and Tong also faced an additional charge of possessing a radio apparatus without a valid licence.

district court
District Court. Photo: HKFP/Ellie Ng.

Criminal trials related to the 2019 protests – initially over a now-withdrawn extradition agreement proposal with China – have thus far been arranged at a lower level, where a District Court judge will sit without a jury. The move was a departure from previous jury trials – such as that of activist Edward Leung over his involvement in the 2016 Mong Kok unrest – which were held at the High Court.

Judge Kwok Wai-kin on Tuesday brought the trial date forward, saying that the court’s workload has increased due to social circumstances, and that “starting the trial earlier will be good for everyone.”

Hong Kong demonstrators have condemned the government for using “rioting” charges, which they said were based on outdated draconian laws. One of the five “core demands” of the movement has been for authorities to stop characterising the protests as “riots.”

Apple Daily estimated that around 230 people have been formally charged with rioting since the start of the unrest in June.

Jackie Chen
Jackie Chen after being pepper-sprayed. Photo: inmediahk.net.

Separately, prosecutors have been criticised as withholding evidence from defence lawyers in cases involving 16 people charged with rioting. The defendants, which included frontline social worker Jackie Chen, were arrested on August 31 in the vicinity of Wan Chai and Causeway Bay.

Defence lawyer Joe Chan told the court that the Department of Justice failed to disclose evidence concerning his client since September, despite multiple requests.

Chan said that the case had been in court for more than three months but prosecutors shared “zero evidence” with the defence: “Not a single page, video clip, or a written statement,” he said. The Department of Justice did not respond to the criticism in court, according to Citizen News.

The next hearings for the cases have been scheduled for January.

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Holmes Chan is a reporter at Hong Kong Free Press. He covers local news with a focus on law, politics, and social movements. He studied law and literature at the University of Hong Kong.