Three young Hong Kong protesters yesterday were jailed for three years on “riot” charges for their part in anti-China protests last year as tensions rise ahead of a vote for the territory’s next leader.
The sentencing came just over a week before a vote for Hong Kong’s new chief executive, which pro-democracy campaigners dismiss as a rigged election weighted toward Beijing.
Pro-democracy advocates have said they will protest on Sunday next week, the day of the leadership selection, which is made by a committee of 1,194 mainly pro-establishment members of special-interest groups.
The three jailed yesterday had taken part in the “fishball riots” of February last year, which tapped into fears that Beijing is tightening its grip on Hong Kong.
None of the three are well-known campaigners.
The riot’s alleged ringleaders from “localist” campaign group Hong Kong Indigenous, which advocates more autonomy for the city, face trial next year.
“Anyone participating in such riots needs to understand there is a cost,” Hong Kong District Court Judge Sham Siu-man (沈小民) said.
The defense argued that the three protesters — two of whom were students and one reported to be a cook — had been expressing their disapproval of the Hong Kong government.
However, Sham said: “Violence is violence,” as he delivered the sentence to the grim-faced accused, Hui Ka-ki (許嘉琪), 23; Mak Tsz-hei (麥子晞), 20; and Sit Tat-wing (薛達榮), 33, who were then led away.
Sham said all three defendants had hurled glass bottles, with Mak throwing bamboo polls at officers.
The clashes erupted after official attempts to remove illegal hawkers from the busy commercial neighborhood of Mong Kok during Lunar New Year celebrations.
The battles were dubbed the “fishball revolution” after a favorite Hong Kong street snack sold by the hawkers and reflected underlying tensions over the erosion of the city’s traditions.
Police fired warning shots in the air, while demonstrators hurled bricks levered up from pavements, charged police lines with homemade shields and set rubbish on fire.
About 100 people were injured, including police officers, journalists and protesters, and 65 were arrested.
Mong Kok, on the city’s Kowloon Peninsula, was the scene of some of the worst clashes during mass pro-democracy “Umbrella movement” rallies in 2014, which failed to win political reform.
Hong Kong Indigenous member Ray Wong (黃台仰), who is also facing a riot charge, said protesters were willing to risk jail.
“Every young Hong Konger loves their home, that’s why they come out to pay the price,” he told reporters outside the court.
Police welcomed the verdict, saying it sent a message that violence would not be tolerated.