HONG KONG - One of Hong Kong’s leading independence activists was found guilty of rioting Friday, convicted for his involvement in some of the city’s worst protest violence in decades.
Edward Leung, 26, who was already in custody after pleading guilty to a separate charge of assaulting a police officer during the 2016 clashes, could be jailed for up to 10 years when he is sentenced at a later date.
The charges against Leung relate to his involvement in running battles with police over the Lunar New Year when protesters hurled bricks torn up from pavements and set rubbish alight in the commercial district of Mong Kok.
The protest began as a seemingly innocuous rally to protect illegal hawkers from health inspectors but it quickly morphed into an outpouring of anger against authorities in Hong Kong and Beijing.
Police fired warning shots in the air as the unrest worsened and scores of people including officers were injured, with dozens arrested.
It was later dubbed the “Fishball Revolution” after one of the city’s best-loved street snacks.
At the forefront of the clashes were young “localists,” a term coined for radical groups promoting a split from the mainland which grew out of the failure of massive pro-democracy rallies in 2014 to win concessions from Beijing on political reform.
At the time, Leung was the head of localist group Hong Kong Indigenous and a rising star on the political scene as the fledgling independence movement gathered momentum, infuriating Beijing.
Prosecutors accused Leung of using violence which caused “damage to social order” and aroused others to engage in “rioting behavior.”
They argued he should be held responsible for the acts of his peers.
After nearly three days of deliberation, the jury convicted him of rioting but acquitted him of inciting others to riot.
The defence said Leung had no intention to riot but wanted to “protect Hong Kong culture.”
Leung testified his participation in activism was inspired by the pro-democracy slogan: “Without resistance, how is there change?” according to local media.
Multiple pro-democracy activists who want a greater say in how the city is run but do not push for full independence have been prosecuted on protest-related charges over the largely peaceful 2014 Umbrella Movement.
Leung is the first high profile activist advocating full independence to come to court.
He was previously barred from standing in legislative elections due to his support for independence as Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing government cracks down on any advocacy of a split.
Leung resigned as spokesman of Hong Kong Indigenous and left the group in December last year, saying he wanted to spend time with his family.
The government’s squeeze on independence campaigners has seen several activists barred from standing for office and others ejected from Hong Kong’s partially elected legislature.