HONG KONG—The 44 people charged with rioting in protests that have rocked this semiautonomous city include a 16-year-old girl, a pilot, students, a teacher, and a couple who run a gym together and are due to be married Sunday.
The defendants, who appeared in court for the first time Wednesday after their arrests over the weekend, reflected the cross-section of Hong Kongers who have been drawn to the now constant demonstrations against encroachment by Beijing and the behavior of police at those events.
Convictions on charges of rioting could bring prison sentences of up to 10 years—and authorities’ decision to bring the charges risks further inflaming anger at the government and police. Outside the courtroom, hundreds of people huddled in the pouring rain as a typhoon loomed, chanting: “There are no riots, only tyranny!”
Police said Tuesday that they had arrested 32 men and 17 women, ages 16 to 41, on Sunday amid one of the fiercest clashes between protesters and police since a political crisis cracked open in early June. They charged 44 of those people with rioting.
Of the 43 who appeared in court, all were granted bail of about $125. Almost all were subjected to curfews running from midnight to 6 a.m., except if it would disrupt the person’s work. Exemptions were made for the pilot, who was allowed to travel but has to submit his work roster to authorities. One person didn’t appear in court.
During the bail proceedings, a number of defendants were flanked by worried parents and family members. One of the accused said she had been arrested for illegal assembly and had been questioned but was suddenly charged with rioting Tuesday evening.
The rioting charges came a day after Beijing’s top office for Hong Kong affairs held a rare news conference and urged the city’s authorities to punish violent protesters and restore order.
“The timing of this makes it clear it’s a political decision,” said Joshua Wong, the 22-year-old pro-democracy activist, who was outside the courtroom to support those arrested. “This will make even more people support the movement.”
Authorities said Tuesday that they brought the riot charges after investigating the incidents and seeking legal advice. The police said officers had repeatedly warned protesters who charged police cordon lines to leave immediately and that the protesters had refused to leave. Several defendants said in interviews they were arrested while trying to flee the scene.
Police arrested the protesters Sunday amid tense clashes in a central district of Hong Kong, where plumes of tear gas filled the air. Hundreds of people had defied police restrictions to march in the direction of China’s liaison office in the city.
Mr. Wong contrasted their fate to the treatment of a gang of dozens of white-shirted men who beat black-shirted protesters and other passengers with staffs and metal bars in the subway station of a distant suburb, injuring at least 45 people. Police arrested 12 men for unlawful assembly in connection with the incident. All have been released on bail and none had been charged, a police spokeswoman said.
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