The political crisis was sparked by a government proposal to allow semiautonomous Hong Kong to extradite suspects wanted by China to face trial in mainland courts. Although Hong Kong officials have suspended the bill, they have refused to withdraw it or compromise on protesters’ other demands, such as an independent inquiry into police actions. The protest movement has grown to encompass a long-held aspiration for universal suffrage.
Outside the packed courtroom on Wednesday, as an approaching tropical storm brought torrential rain and strong winds to the city, hundreds of protesters gathered to offer support for the defendants. Some chanted “Revolution of our time!” and “Release the defendants!” Inside, as bail conditions were read out, an elderly woman cried and hugged one of the defendants.
All of the accused — ages 16 to 41 — were granted bail, most with curfew conditions. Some bore scratches and bruises sustained in Sunday’s protest. They are to reappear in court in mid-September.
The court hearing followed clashes Tuesday evening between officers and protesters who surrounded a police station to voice anger at the rioting charges. At one point, protesters were attacked with fireworks launched from a passing car; at least seven were taken to the hospital.
Police said earlier Tuesday that they had charged 44 people with rioting in connection with the Sunday protest. One faced an additional charge of assaulting a police officer, and a 45th person was charged with possession of an offensive weapon. Police said more arrests were possible as their investigation continued.
Protesters over the weekend defied authorities and marched in Hong Kong streets for the eighth consecutive weekend. Police had warned that the demonstrations were illegal and that protesters would be arrested if they did not leave the scene. On Sunday evening, police used force to clear demonstrators from densely populated areas of the city, deploying so much tear gas that it seeped into surrounding homes and left passersby choking.
Demonstrators had also prepared for battle, arming themselves with shields and bricks. Some used hand protection so that they could throw hot tear gas canisters back at police. Officers responded by charging at protesters, hitting some with batons and leaving more than a dozen injured.
Some of those charged, however, said they had nothing to do with the clashes and happened to be in the wrong place at the time. One female defendant charged with rioting, who declined to be named because of the criminal case, said she was among protesters who were moving back from police lines when canisters of tear gas were fired.
She was initially detained on a charge of illegal assembly, like the others arrested Sunday, before that was increased to rioting.
“All of us, we are made an example of,” she said, adding that officers had pushed her to the ground. “I didn’t think this would happen. We are all just chasing justice and fighting for our rights.”
Chinese authorities in recent days have backed a tougher stance toward the protests, which have increasingly taken on an anti-Beijing flavor. The central government’s Hong Kong liaison office held an unprecedented news conference Monday to signal its support for Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam and called for the punishment of “radicals.”
“The most pressing task for the moment is to punish violence and maintain order,” said Yang Guang, a spokesman for the office.
Beijing authorities, meanwhile, have said nothing about a mob attack on anti-government protesters who were returning from a march as well as on bystanders, leaving 45 injured. Several members of the club-wielding mob have been arrested, but on a lighter charge of unlawful assembly.
Man-kei Tam, the director of Amnesty International Hong Kong, said authorities “seem intent on sending a chilling warning to anyone considering taking part in future protests.”
“While there was violence over the weekend, the definitions of illegal assembly and rioting under Hong Kong law are so broad they fall far short of international standards,” he said. “It is highly questionable that individuals facing these sweeping charges would have a fair chance of defending themselves at trial.”
The riot charges have further fueled the protest movement. More protests, including one organized by civil servants, are planned in the coming days, and trade unions are calling for a general strike Monday.