Henry Tong (湯偉雄) and Elaine To (杜依蘭) were preparing to spend their first wedding anniversary in separate prison cells until their acquittal for rioting during Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests.
There were gasps and tears of relief in court on Friday last week as a judge declared prosecutors had failed to prove that the couple took part in clashes with police in July last year.
The pair walked free in a ruling that has potential consequences for hundreds of other protesters facing similar charges.
However, they have a long journey ahead as they try to rebuild their lives and business.
“We have already been punished,” Tong said a day after his acquittal.
Fighting the charges has exacted a heavy mental and financial toll on the pair, who were among the first protesters to be prosecuted for rioting, an offense that carries up to a decade in jail.
Over the weekend they began unboxing all the equipment that had been packed away inside the fitness studio they run in the trendy neighborhood of Sheung Wan.
They also collected their three dogs — who were ready to be taken in by friends and family.
“Now we can keep the shop open and we need to make it look cool again,” To said.
However, the future still looks uncertain.
“We suffered a lot financially,” Tong said.
Of the more than 9,000 people arrested during the unrest, more than 650 have been hit with rioting charges and trials now fill the territory’s courts.
Under the law authorities can declare any protest a riot if three or more people commit certain violent acts.
However, Tong and To’s two-month trial suggests that the courts expect prosecutors to prove more than mere presence at a protest to secure a conviction.
Tong and To were arrested in a side alley along with a teenage girl on July 28 last year during clashes between protesters and police.
Prosecutors said they were taking part in the clashes, saying they had gas masks and radios.
Their defense said that they were helping people escape clouds of tear gas fired by police, and while they had attended protests they were not participating in street battles.
Presiding judge Anthony Kwok (郭啟安) said that prosecutors could not provide direct evidence of the defendants’ participation in a riot.
Tong said he was angry that prosecutors had pressed the case.
“All this shouldn’t have happened, if they had spent more time on finding facts and a proper legal basis, instead of forcing the charges,” he said, adding that they had sought psychological help with the ordeal of the trial.
Tong and To are now thinking about how to celebrate their first anniversary, having been married four days after they were initially released on bail.
“We couldn’t have a honeymoon last year because our travel documents were forfeited,” To said.
Tong says he believes that Hong Kongers will continue to voice dissatisfaction with how their city is run.
“A political problem can’t be resolved with laws,” he said. “Suppression and intimidation will only make people more angry, and eventually, what use will punishment be when some are not even afraid of death?”
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