Twenty people were found guilty on Saturday of rioting in Sheung Wan in 2019, while three have been acquitted of all charges following a 64-day trial that concluded in July.

The case marked a first time a Court of Final Appeal judgement was cited which ruled that the common law principle of “joint enterprise” cannot be used to prosecute defendants who were not principal offenders at the actual scene of a riot or unlawful assembly.

File Photo: May James/HKFP.

The 23 defendants were among a second group of 44 people charged with participating in a riot in connection with pro-democracy protest that occurred near the China Liaison Office on July 28, 2019. The group were divided into three court cases, to be handled by different judges at the District Court.

Protests erupted in June 2019 over a since-axed extradition bill. They escalated into sometimes violent displays of dissent against police behaviour, amid calls for democracy and anger over Beijing’s encroachment. Thousands marched to Causeway Bay and Sai Wan during the unsanctioned July 28 protest. Police deployed hundreds of rounds of tear gas, rubber bullets and sponge grenades to disperse protesters. The intense clashes ended with 49 arrested and 16 injured.

Of the 24 people charged in the second of the three cases, only one pleaded guilty to rioting. District Court judge Johnny Chan on Saturday found 20 of the remaining defendants guilty of participating in a riot, and acquitted three, local media reported.

Delayed verdict

While their trial concluded in July, Chan delayed handing down a verdict until after Hong Kong’s top court had delivered its ruling on the “joint enterprise” principle on November 4.

In a 400-page judgement, Chan cited the Court of Final Appeal’s ruling that illegal assembly and rioting charges were both “participatory” crimes, and successful convictions must be able to prove that the defendants were not acting alone, and instead were participating alongside others and were aware of the others’ actions with “participatory intent.”

File Photo: May James/HKFP.

Chan affirmed that the 20 convicted individuals had participated in a riot as principal offenders, based on evidence about the clothes they wore, tools in their possession, as well as the time and place of their arrests. It can be concluded beyond reasonable doubt that the defendants were participants in a riot, and were not bystanders or people who happened to pass by a protest site, Chan said in his ruling.

Absolutely not bystanders

Among the 20 convicts, 16 were seen on the protest frontlines in a stand-off against the police, causing a ripple effect that intensified confrontations between protesters and the force, the judge said. One of the convicted was found guilty of an additional charge of assaulting a police officer while another was found guilty of illegal possession of radio apparatus.

Photo: May James/HKFP.

“While it cannot be proven that a person participated in an illegal assembly or a riot only based on the fact that they wore black clothes, trousers and shoes … the Court may consider whether tools and clothes found on the defendants in this case constitute circumstantial evidence, based on what protesters typically wore in protests that occurred between June 2019 until the day of the crime, in order to conclude whether they happened to be passers-by or were participants in a riot,” Chan wrote.

Photo: May James/HKFP.

Meanwhile, three students aged between 20 to 23 were acquitted of rioting and cleared of the alternative charge of illegal assembly. Based on what they wore and tools they possessed, the trio certainly did not appear to be mere bystanders, Chan wrote in his judgement, yet the evidence was unable to show that they were aware that they were at an illegal assembly, even though circumstantial evidence indicated that they “very likely were participants in a riot.”

The convicts were held on remand after their bail was revoked. They are set to be sentenced on December 4.

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Selina Cheng

Selina Cheng is a Hong Kong journalist who previously worked with HK01, Quartz and AFP Beijing. She also covered the Umbrella Movement for AP and reported for a newspaper in France. Selina has studied investigative reporting at the Columbia Journalism School.