A Hong Kong court on Saturday found seven people not guilty of rioting during a pro-democracy protest in Wan Chai last August. But the city’s justice secretary has indicated plans to appeal against a court’s earlier decision to drop a rioting charge against social worker Jackie Chen.

In his 44-page judgement, District Court Judge Sham Siu-man concluded that the seven defendants – aged 20 to 27 – were to be cleared of rioting because the prosecution failed to prove the offences had been committed beyond all reasonable doubt.

District Court. Photo: HKFP/Ellie Ng.

The group were accused of taking part in a riot with other people in the area of Luard Road and Hennessy Road last August 31, during the peak of the anti-extradition bill protests.

The case became high-profile as it involved registered social worker Chen, a member of the Battlefield Social Worker group which volunteered to monitor police behaviour, liaise between protesters and the force, as well as provide emotional support at demonstrations. Chen told HKFP in May that her case would likely become a precedent for other frontline social workers.

During a trial in September, Sham withdrew the charge against Chen, saying there was a lack of prima facie evidence to show the speech and conduct of the social worker – who called for officers to calm down through a microphone – amounted to an unlawful assembly, let alone rioting.

In his written decision on Saturday, Sham said the prosecution lacked evidence to show what the defendants did before their arrests. The judge said their mere presence at the scene was not enough to prove guilt.

Protest scenes from August 31, 2019. Photo: May James/HKFP.

“Undoubtedly, the situation of the night in question was not something that one would often see in Hong Kong. To some people, it was perhaps a rare and special historical moment. The Court does not rule out the possibility that, among those present, there were indeed some who went there hoping to witness everything that was happening,” Sham wrote.

The judge added people who dressed in black should not be casually regarded as participants of a riot, and it was “not blameworthy” for the defendants to carry defensive gear such as face masks, goggles, respirators and gloves to protect themselves from the tear gas.

“The Court is of the view that one should not casually regard those dressed in black as participants of riots or unlawful assembly. This is in itself a dangerous approach by which innocent people could be wronged,” he said.

The fourth defendant Jason Gung faced a separate charge of possession of offensive weapons, as police claimed they found a petrol bomb and an extendable baton in his backpack. But the offence was not substantiated as Sham pointed to the discrepancy between an officer’s testimony and video evidence.

Social worker Jackie Chen (third from left). Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

On Facebook, Chen hailed the acquittal of the seven defendants in her case, saying it was a “manifestation of justice.” She also attached a photo of a letter from the Department of Justice (DoJ) to Sham in early October, which indicated that the Secretary for Justice Teresa Cheng may lodge an appeal against the court’s decision to let the social worker walk free.

According to the letter, Cheng said she was dissatisfied with Sham’s verdict and thought the legal point of view in the judgement was “wrong and aggrieving.” The DoJ asked Sham to present the facts and reasons for his ruling in order for the department to file an appeal.

“I will have to experience the process of a trial again, facing the rioting charge. But I believe that, aside from the support of the legal team of S.C. Hectar Pun, God will continue to look after me,” Chen said.

Support press freedom & help us surpass 1,000 monthly Patrons: 100% independent, governed by an ethics code & not-for-profit, Hong Kong Free Press is #PressingOn with impartial, award-winning, frontline coverage.

Kelly Ho

Kelly Ho has an interest in local politics, education and sports. She formerly worked at South China Morning Post Young Post, where she specialised in reporting on issues related to Hong Kong youth. She has a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Hong Kong, with a second major in Politics and Public Administration.