More than 20 people have been jailed for up to 50 months over rioting near the Hong Kong government headquarters during the anti-extradition bill unrest more than four years ago.

september 29 china extradition protest admiralty
Protest scene in Admiralty, Hong Kong on September 29, 2019. Photo: May James/HKFP

District Judge Ernest Lin on Thursday handed out prison terms to 23 people over their participation in what the court ruled a riot in Admiralty on September 29, 2019, when the city saw widespread demonstrations triggered by a since-axed extradition bill.

More than 1,000 people were said to have been involved in the riot that day, which lasted for more than two hours in an area of Hong Kong filled with five-star hotels and government buildings.

Some protesters set up roadblocks and hurled petrol bombs that landed on water barricades outside the Central Government Offices. Others dug up bricks from the pavement and used a large rubber band to shoot hard objects at the government headquarters.

The “selfish and arrogant” acts of the protesters caused inconvenience and discomfort to other people in the area, the judge said in Cantonese.

Although there was no evidence to show there was an obvious organiser behind the demonstrations on the day, the unrest in 2019 “had a certain pattern,” the judge said. People gathered people under the guise of a peaceful protest which often descended into violence, he said.

september 29 china extradition protest admiralty tear gas police
Hong Kong police fire tear gas in Admiralty on September 29, 2019. Photo: May James/HKFP

“It was a planned anti-government movement,” Lin said, adding if the demonstrators’ aim was to protest alleged police misconduct, they should have targeted the police headquarters and should not have damaged government buildings.

While individual defendants joined the protest at different times, their attire and gear suggested their acts were not spontaneous, the judge said. Their participation also increased the destructiveness and momentum of the demonstration, he added.

“Although there was no data showing the financial cost of the incident… the biggest loss was not the public funding wasted [on restoring vandalised facilities], but rather the social harmony and mutual trust in society and the cosmopolitan image of Hong Kong,” Lin said.

Among the defendants, most of whom were students, 21 pleaded guilty to the rioting charge. Lau Chun-him faced an additional charge of assaulting police, while Keung Kai-wang was also accused of possessing an offensive weapon in public. Only Tang Ka-lok and Fan Yiu-kam were found guilty after trial in August.

Lin took 51 months in prison as the starting sentence for most defendants and applied different sentencing discounts. Ma Wing-sze received the shortest jail term of 28 months, while Tang and Fan received heavier sentences of 46 months and 50 months behind bars, respectively.

District Court
District Court. File photo: GovHK.

“Violence is never a solution to problems,” Lin told the defendants during the hearing.

Thursday’s sentencing took place in a new mega courtroom at the Wan Chai courthouse and saw the large group of defendants seated on three long benches inside the dock. The public gallery was filled with their family and friends, some of whom wept during the sentencing.

Only those seated on the left-hand side of the public gallery could see the dock, as two large pillars blocked others’ sightline. Many people rushed to the back of the counsel’s bench to get a glimpse of the defendants and to bid them farewell after the hearing ended. Some made a heart hand gesture, while others gave a thumbs-up.

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.” 

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Ho Long Sze Kelly is a Hong Kong-based journalist covering politics, criminal justice, human rights, social welfare and education. As a Senior Reporter at Hong Kong Free Press, she has covered the aftermath of the 2019 extradition bill protests and the Covid-19 pandemic extensively, as well as documented the transformation of her home city under the Beijing-imposed national security law.

Kelly has a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Hong Kong, with a second major in Politics and Public Administration. Prior to joining HKFP in 2020, she was on the frontlines covering the 2019 citywide unrest for South China Morning Post’s Young Post. She also covered sports and youth-related issues.