HONG KONG (Reuters) – A 21-year-old Hong Kong lifeguard, the first anti-government protester to plead guilty to the charge of rioting during last year’s unrest, was sentenced to four years’ jail on Friday for a “direct attack on the rule of law”.
Sin Ka-ho was among thousands who surrounded the Legislative Council on June 12 in a bid to stop legislators from giving a second reading to a since-withdrawn bill that would have allowed extraditions to mainland China.
A few dozen protesters, many wearing black and holding a banner reading “Liberate Hong Kong, Revolution of our times” gathered outside the court, chanting “there’s no riot, only tyranny”.
As Sin was driven away in a van, some protesters knocked on its windows and shouted “Stay strong!”
The protest at the Legislative Council was the first of many last year that police cleared with tear gas and rubber bullets, angering moderate Hong Kong people in a pivotal moment for the anti-government movement.
Demonstrations turned more confrontational and broadened to demands for democracy in the Chinese-ruled city amid anger at Beijing’s perceived meddling with its freedoms.
Sin admitted to pushing police barricades and hurling umbrellas and other objects at officers, but denied planning the assaults.
The defendant’s actions were “a direct attack on the rule of law,” District Court Justice Amanda Woodcock said in the sentencing, which is seen as potentially laying down a marker for the nearly 600 protesters who have been charged with rioting, risking up to 10 years in jail.
Neither Sin nor his lawyer commented on the sentence.
Sin has been the only one so far to plead guilty, in a symbolic blow for the protest movement, whose demands include amnesty for all those arrested and the government dropping its characterisation of the protests as “riots”.
Hong Kong, a former British colony, returned to Chinese rule in 1997 with the guarantee of many freedoms not enjoyed on the mainland, including an independent judiciary. Communist Party rulers in Beijing deny interfering with those freedoms.
The protesters’ main demands are universal suffrage and an independent inquiry into police’s handling of the demonstrations.
Accusations of police brutality must not be used as “a weapon of political protest”, the police watchdog said in a report on Friday, adding that the city appeared to be getting dragged into an “era of terrorism”.
More than 8,300 protesters were arrested between June 2019 and mid-May this year. Over 1,600 have been prosecuted and 595 face rioting charges.
Sin’s sentence was reduced from six to four years due to his clear record and guilty plea.
Demonstrations are likely to pick up in the summer after a relative lull this year due to social distancing measures taken to fight the coronavirus outbreak, which has largely been brought under control.
(Additional reporting by Pak Yiu; Editing by Marius Zaharia and Nick Macfie)