Former Chinese University (CUHK) student leader Owen Au was sentenced to six months behind bars on Wednesday for participating in an unlawful assembly and violating a mask ban during a protest in October 2019.

Magistrate Jacky Ip meted out prison terms to the 22-year-old and four other protesters at the Kowloon City Magistrates’ Courts after the group were convicted in mid-May.

Owen Au. File photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

The five defendants – who have been detained for over two weeks pending sentencing – faced a total of 13 charges, including taking part in an unlawful assembly in Mong Kok on October 20, 2019.

On that day, hundreds of thousands of Hongkongers defied a police ban and marched in Kowloon in opposition to an anti-mask law imposed by the government. The peaceful demonstration quickly descended into violent clashes between activists and police. Protesters threw petrol bombs, set fires and vandalised shops. The force deployed water cannon trucks and fired tear gas and other projectiles against the crowds.

Au’s co-defendants were three students aged 20 to 22, as well as a 49-year-old man who worked in the Electrical and Mechanical Services Department. They were sentenced to jail terms ranging from six to eight months.

‘Public interest’

In handing down sentences, Ip said the court would take into account the young age of some of the convicts, but such a factor might not matter much when it came to serious charges.

Kowloon City Magistrates’ Courts. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

The magistrate said sending some of the defendants to a detention centre – an alternative form of imprisonment for male offenders aged between 14 and 25 – would not reflect the severity of the offences in this case.

“The court cannot neglect the public interest,” Ip said.

Au’s counsel Timothy Lau said the Year Four CUHK student had deferred his studies and he wanted to return to university as soon as possible. He said Au did not mind a short-term imprisonment as punishment.

The magistrate cited a report by the Correctional Services Department stating that Au “did not understand the seriousness” of his offences even after he was convicted. The report also said Au told a corrections officer that he had worn a face mask during the protest because he had difficulty breathing.

Protest scenes from October 20, 2019. Photo: May James/HKFP.

Lau responded by saying while Au did not show a “traditional kind of remorse,” the ex-CUHK leader was willing to bear responsibility for his actions.

In mitigation on May 18, Au submitted a lengthy personal letter in which he said he understood that he had violated Hong Kong’s laws and was willing to bear the consequences.

“I have absolutely no complaints, because this is the destiny I chose autonomously,” Au told the court in his plea.

The court found the five guilty of breaching the anti-mask law, saying they had worn face masks or other face-coverings during the illegal gathering. Ip said on Wednesday that the face-coverings hid the personal identity of the protesters and made them “bold” in using violence.

The ex-president of the CUHK students’ union was also convicted of possessing a bottle of spray paint with intent to damage property. The four other protesters each faced one count of possession of an offensive weapon or other instrument fit for unlawful purposes. Two of them were found guilty of assaulting and obstructing police.

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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.