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Edward Leung, with Lo Kin-man and Wong Ka-kui in front of him, after the three were convicted of ‘riot’-related offenses at the Hong Kong HIgh Court on Friday, May 18, 2018 (photo: Winson Wong)

Justice it ain’t: The Mong Kok ‘riot’ trials

A review of Hong Kong government prosecutions of protesters for the police-protester violence in Mong Kok at Chinese New Year, 8 to 9 February 2016

This article focuses on the Mong Kok trials. For a review of Hong Kong government prosecutions of pro-democracy leaders and activists, see here.

Why ‘riot’ is, in this case, a loaded term

The event to which these trials are related has been variously referred to as a ‘riot’, the ‘Fishball Revolution’, ‘clashes’ and ‘civil unrest’. I find ‘police-protester violence’ or ‘clashes’ to be the most appropriate terms.

The trial of Edward Leung

The just-concluded trial was the highest profile of the Mong Kok cases because one of the six defendants was Edward Leung Tin-kei. At the time of the clashes, Leung was a leader of localist group Hong Kong Indigenous. He then ran for the Legislative Council in a by-election held the very same month, February 2016. While finishing third, he did well enough that he was expected to win a seat in the city-wide Legco elections of September. But he was arbitrarily disqualified from running by an administrative official at the behest of the Hong Kong government, on grounds that since he supported independence for Hong Kong, he could not be expected to uphold the Basic Law, a duty of Legco members; this, in spite of the fact that he had been allowed to run seven months previously and, in his application for candidacy, had forsworn independence advocacy and promised to uphold the Basic Law. To protest this abuse of his rights, he filed an election petition at the Hong Kong High Court, which to this day, a year and a half later, still has not been heard.

An overview and analysis of results

Originally, 90 people were arrested, and 51 were charged. Charges were dropped against 20 due to lack of evidence, leaving 31 to prosecute. Six were later arrested or charged with additional counts.

The Public Order Ordinance needs reform but the Hong Kong government is doubling down on its use.

This raises many questions about the legitimacy of the ‘riot’ charge, which comes under the Public Order Ordinance, a set of laws on assembly that have been repeatedly criticized by the United Nations Human Rights Committee, Human Rights Watch, Hong Kong Watch and former Hong Kong governor Chris Patten as failing to meet international standards, possibly facilitating excessive restrictions on freedom of assembly, and open to abuse by police and prosecutors. In regard to ‘riot’, the bar is set very low, for all that needs to have occurred is commission of a ‘breach of the peace’ in an unlawful assembly. A breach of the peace could be as little as shouting loudly; in other words, it is not even equivalent to commission of an act of violence.

The lack of police accountability for its actions during the Umbrella Movement has been compounded by its similar lack in the Mong Kok police-protester violence.

The Mong Kok ‘riot’ trials should be viewed in the wider context of the event to which they are related and this particular moment in Hong Kong history. The violence between Hong Kong police and citizens that night was the worst that had occurred since 1967. For the first time in living memory, a police officer discharged his pistol at a protest, bringing Hong Kong closer than ever to its first protest-related fatality since the 1960s.

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Repercussions and implications of the Mong Kok prosecutions

Far from blindly supporting the protesters that evening, I abhor violence of any kind. I believe the struggle for democracy, self-determination and justice must remain entirely nonviolent. I understand the anger and frustration that motivated the protesters, I feel it myself, but those motivations do not justify their violent acts, which were not only morally unacceptable but strategically idiotic, catastrophically so.

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Written by

Author of ‘Umbrella: A Political Tale from Hong Kong’ and ‘As long as there is resistance, there is hope: Essays on the Hong Kong freedom struggle…’

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