A Hong Kong court has cleared a man of an unlawful assembly charge linked to a protest in November 2019, citing inconsistencies between a police officer’s testimony and footage taken at the scene.

Cheng ting-fung, who was 19 at the time of the incident, faced charges of failing to produce proof of identity on demand and taking part in an unlawful assembly. He earlier pleaded guilty to the former, and not guilty to the latter, according to The Witness.

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Tuen Mun Law Courts Building. File photo: Wikicommons.

Standing before the courtroom at Tuen Mun Magistrates’ Court on Monday, Cheng was acquitted of the unlawful assembly charge by magistrate Jeffrey Sze.

Sze said that footage taken on the day did not show Cheng chanting slogans or raising a middle finger at police, contrary to the testimony of an officer who took Cheng away.

Meanwhile, he handed Cheng a HK$400 fine for failing to produce identity proof.

Multi-district protests

Cheng – now a philosophy student at the Chinese University of Hong Kong – was suspected of taking part in an unlawful assembly at the intersection of Tuen Mun Heung Sze Wui Road and Ho Pong Road on November 10, 2019.

That day, Hong Kong saw clashes between protesters and police officers at shopping malls in multiple districts, including in Sha Tin, Tsuen Wan and Kowloon Tong.

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A protest at a shopping mall in Tsuen Wan on November 10, 2019. Photo: May James/HKFP.

In Tuen Mun, protesters attempted to block roads using plastic barricades and styrofoam boxes.

The months-long demonstrations in 2019 were sparked by a controversial extradition bill that would have allowed the transfer of fugitives to mainland China to stand trial. The protests grew into wider unrest calling for democratic reform.

One of the police officers, surnamed Wong, told the court earlier that Cheng stood at an intersection and raised his middle finger at officers, yelling “corrupt cops” and “[show your] warrant card.” During the protests, police officers were accused of hiding their identity in order to escape accountability.

Wong said he gave two warnings to Cheng, ordering him not to rouse the emotions of people at the scene, but was ignored. He said he monitored Cheng for five minutes before taking him away.

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A protest in 2019. File photo: May James/HKFP.

But Sze said that when comparing Wong’s testimony to video clips, the officer was seen standing on a pedestrian road, not at the intersection he said Cheng was at, and appeared to be handling other matters. Two minutes later, when he did walk onto the road, he had his back to Cheng.

Wong did eventually turn around and watch Cheng, the magistrate said, but observed him for less than three minutes – not five, as Wong had said – before approaching him.

Sze said an unlawful assembly is defined as a gathering of three people or more, but by that time, the protesters had already left and the prosecution could not prove that the people at the scene were passers-by or people taking part in the assembly. He added that there was no evidence showing that Wong raised his middle finger and chanted slogans.

Over 10,200 people were arrested during the protests in 2019, around 40 per cent of whom were secondary school and university students.

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Hillary Leung is a journalist at Hong Kong Free Press, where she reports on local politics and social issues, and assists with editing. Since joining in late 2021, she has covered the Covid-19 pandemic, political court cases including the 47 democrats national security trial, and challenges faced by minority communities.

Born and raised in Hong Kong, Hillary completed her undergraduate degree in journalism and sociology at the University of Hong Kong. She worked at TIME Magazine in 2019, where she wrote about Asia and overnight US news before turning her focus to the protests that began that summer. At Coconuts Hong Kong, she covered general news and wrote features, including about a Black Lives Matter march that drew controversy amid the local pro-democracy movement and two sisters who were born to a domestic worker and lived undocumented for 30 years in Hong Kong.