A Hong Kong woman has been jailed for two and a half years for rioting during a protest in 2019 when she was 16, after the judge decided against a custodial alternative often considered for young offenders.

october 6 protest wan chai
A protest against the government’s anti-mask order in Wan Chai on Oct. 6, 2019. Photo: May James/HKFP.

Tsang Ling-yi, now 20, appeared at West Kowloon Magistrates’ Court for sentencing in the District Court case on Monday afternoon. Last December, she changed her plea to plead guilty to rioting in Wan Chai in October 2019, The Witness reported.

The case revolved around a protest near Hennessy Road on October 6, 2019, when the government’s mask ban – meant to deter protesters from hiding their identities – came into effect. Rallies broke out across the city that day, with demonstrators setting road blocks and throwing petrol bombs while police fired tear gas.

Tsang’s sentencing was previously pushed back to allow more time for mitigation and for the judge to decide an appropriate punishment. Given her age, the court had twice sought background reports to assess if Tsang should be sentenced to a training centre, according to local media. Training centres are an alternative to imprisonment for young offenders and place emphasis on rehabilitation.

october 6 protest wan chai
A protest against the government’s anti-mask order in Wan Chai on Oct. 6, 2019. Photo: May James/HKFP.

Handing down the sentence, judge Karen Leung noted the reports’ comments that Tsang’s medication affected her concentration and made her agitated and sleepy, saying she would not have the energy to handle training at the centre. Leung also said sentencing Tsang to a training order would not be in Tsang’s interest or those of society, and that a jail term was the “only choice.”

Leung took a starting point of 50 months. Considering that Tsang had pleaded guilty before the pre-trial review, Leung offered a 20 per cent sentence discount. She then deducted another six months, keeping in mind that Tsang had been diagnosed with emotional disorders at a young age, to arrive at a term of 31 months and two weeks, according to The Witness.

2019 protests

During mitigation, the defence said Tsang had grown up in a low-income family. The defence also said Tsang and her father took turns to take care of their mother, who was diagnosed with a rare disease in recent years.

In a mitigation letter, Tsang said that she had been affected by the societal atmosphere at the time and felt remorseful now. Her father wrote that Tsang had experienced social anxiety since childhood and was easily influenced, while her teacher praised her passion for art and philosophy.

riot police october 6 protest wan chai
A police officer on stand by during a protest against the government’s anti-mask order in Wan Chai on Oct. 6, 2019. Photo: May James/HKFP.

Of the additional seven defendants in the case who pleaded not guilty and were convicted after the trial, four were jailed between 50 and 51 months in August. Three were sentenced to a training centre – two of them were 16 at the time of offence, and one who was 13.

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. Demonstrators demanded an independent probe into police conduct, amnesty for those arrested and a halt to the characterisation of protests as “riots.” 

The demonstrations dried up in 2020 amid the Covid-19 outbreak and Beijing’s imposition of a national security law in Hong Kong that June.

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Hillary has an interest in social issues and politics. Previously, she reported on Asia broadly - including on Hong Kong's 2019 protests - for TIME Magazine and covered local news at Coconuts Hong Kong.