Hong Kong police have charged 44 people, including 14 students, with rioting after an illegal protest Sunday spiraled into chaos and brought parts of the city to a standstill, amid a deepening political crisis that shows little signs of deescalating.
They mark the first rioting charges pressed during the eight weeks of protests that have rocked the semi-autonomous Chinese city, and those found guilty face up to ten years in jail. The youngest person charged is a 16-year-old girl.
A total of 43 of the 44 people charged with rioting appeared on Wednesday at the Eastern Magistrates’ Court, where the judge granted them bail.
One did not present herself at court as ordered. The judge issued an arrest warrant and she will no longer be eligible for bail.
In a statement Tuesday, police accused pro-democracy protesters of “peace-breaching acts” and attacking police officers. “They set up roadblocks by umbrellas, wooden planks, bamboo sticks and railings; pried up pavement bricks, demolished roadside fences, damaged street signs and lampposts as well as attacked police officers at scene with lethal weapons such as bricks and sharpened iron rods,” the statement said.
On Sunday, protesters defied police orders and left an authorized demonstration in Chater Gardens to march through the city center. Many of the protesters were wearing black, the adopted color of the protest movement, and headed for the Chinese government’s Liaison Office in the west of the city.
There, in a largely residential area, police and protesters clashed. Riot police fired tear gas and rubber bullets at protesters, who set a cart on fire and pushed it in the direction of officers.
Because police authorization had not been given to march through the city, the protest became illegal the minute the demonstrators left Chater Gardens. Ventus Lau, 25, one of the organizers of Sunday’s protest, called the police decision to outlaw the march through Hong Kong “a serious threat to our freedom of expression in Hong Kong.”
“There’s no rioters, there’s only tyranny,” is a popular slogan adopted by protesters in recent weeks.
On Tuesday evening, as the city was lashed by a tropical storm, hundreds of people gathered outside the Kwai Chung police station in the New Territories, where police had charged some of Sunday’s protesters. Police used pepper spray and batons as protestors threw objects and chanted: “Release the arrested now.”
There were also skirmishes outside the police station in Tin Shui Wai, near the suburb of Yuen Long on the border with China which has been the scene of violent mob attacks and police and protester clashes.
Police said an active investigation had begun and further arrests were possible.
In total, 49 protesters were arrested in relation to Sunday’s violence, including 32 men and 17 women, aged between 16 and 41. A 24-year-old man was charged with possession of offensive weapons, while two men were released on bail pending further investigation, and two were temporarily released. One of the defendants charged with rioting was given an additional charge of assaulting a police officer.
The defendants include a chef, a pilot, a nurse, an electrician, a construction worker, a teacher, several clerks and the 14 students.
Bail for the 44 was set at HK$1,000 ($127) and conditions demand that defendants remain under curfew from 12 a.m. to 6 a.m. and must report weekly to police stations.
The cases have been divided into four trials to begin in September.
More forceful response to protesters
Mass protests have rocked the major global financial hub for eight consecutive weeks, triggered by a controversial — and now-shelved — bill that would have allowed extradition from the city to mainland China.
Protesters’ demands over that period have broadened to encompass issues such as greater democracy for the city, an inquiry into alleged police brutality, declassifying protests as riots, and the resignation of Chief Executive Carrie Lam.
The demonstrations have also steadily escalated in terms of violence and rhetoric.
Following an attack on protesters by a baton-wielding mob in Yuen Long subway station on July 21, which left 45 injured, police arrested six men, some of whom had links to crime gangs known as triads. Those men face the lesser charge of “unlawful assembly.”
The more serious rioting charge leveled against Sunday’s protesters follows Beijing’s public backing of the Hong Kong police and government. On Monday, the Chinese government accused pro-democracy protesters of committing “evil and criminal acts” that have seriously damaged the semi-autonomous city’s “reputation” and “stability.”
At a press conference in Beijing, Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office spokesman Yang Guang called the situation in Hong Kong “grave,” adding that Beijing would not allow any challenge to the Chinese government’s authority or threats to national security.
“No civilization or society under the rule of law would ever allow acts of violence to take place. We call on the general public of Hong Kong to be aware of the grave nature of the current situation,” Yang said, calling on Hong Kong citizens to condemn protester violence.
“Hong Kong is China’s Hong Kong. Hong Kong’s affairs are China’s domestic affairs,” he added. Hong Kong has been governed under a “one country, two systems” model since the city transferred from British to Chinese rule in 1997.
It was the first time China’s top Hong Kong policy office had given a briefing on the mass demonstrations.