A 16-year-old student has become the youngest person to plead guilty to rioting during Hong Kong’s anti-government protests in 2019.
The boy on Wednesday admitted to hurling a petrol bomb at an officer, without injuring him, during a midnight stand-off between protesters and riot police in the shopping district of Mong Kok on November 16, 2019.
The District Court heard he was just 14 years old at the time of his arrest on site, near the junction of Nathan Road and Shantung Street, shortly after a riot – involving about 70 protesters – broke out at about 2.25am.
He had turned 15 by the time he was charged last June (when the magistrate made a gag order not to name the defendant), and 16 when the case was ready for plea, which meant he cannot be sentenced by the Juvenile Court.
Appearing before District Judge Ernest Lin Kam-hung, the boy pleaded guilty to one count each of rioting and attempted arson, and denied charges of using facial covering during an unlawful assembly, as well as possessing articles with intent to destroy property.
The court heard the boy admitted his offence at the earliest opportunity, but said “someone” had given him the bomb and taught him how to hurl it towards the ground.
His projectile eventually landed 20 metres (66 feet) away from the officer, setting the ground on fire, without injuring anyone.
Prosecutors offered no evidence in respect of the charges he denied, and they were formally dismissed by court order. The boy, now a Form Four student, had no prior convictions.
Rioting is punishable by 10 years in prison, but the term is capped at seven years when the case is heard at the District Court.
Defence counsel Jeffrey Tam Chun-kit urged the court to follow provisions in the Juvenile Offenders Ordinance and consider alternatives to a prison sentence to give the remorseful student a chance to turn over a new leaf after “a foolish offence committed on impulse”.
Mitigation letters from the boy’s primary and secondary school principals and teachers, as well as his piano tutor, basketball coach and social workers, depicted him as a polite and talented student who had reflected on what happened and received counselling.
He also wrote to the court indicating that he was willing to shoulder the “heavy price” for his thoughtless act, while his parents pleaded for leniency so he could return to school.
Tam also drew the court’s attention to recent sentencing reviews at the Court of Appeal, which has considered alternatives to prison terms after clarifying sentencing principles in cases involving young offenders who broke the law in a protest setting.
One example was the recent case of another 16-year-old, with Asperger syndrome, who was sent to a training centre for hurling a petrol bomb at police quarters, after the appeal judges found his original probation order inadequate.
In a judgment handed down on Wednesday, Mr Justice Derek Pang Wai-cheong said custodial sentences were inevitable for serious arson cases, but also observed that the various custodial options alternative to prison might actually be “the best path” for young offenders’ rehabilitation.
That case followed another review in which a 15-year-old boy’s probation was replaced by a detention order. The juvenile was also accused of arson, for hurling three petrol bombs onto a deserted street.
Judge Lin will pass sentence on March 3, pending reports on the defendant’s background and suitability for a training or detention centre.
Detention in training centres can range between six months to three years, depending on the teen offender’s performance in custody, where he or she is to be trained in a trade.
The length of custody in detention centres similarly depend on conduct, but such facilities are reserved for male offenders aged 14 to 24, given the emphasis on hard physical labour and discipline.
Both options come with a supervision period of three years, with the individual expected to obey certain requirements, or face further conviction, or more time in the centre.
About 10 people have pleaded guilty to rioting charges so far, while five others were convicted after trial. All of them were jailed.
The heaviest sentence went to construction worker Ho Ka-lok, 30, who was jailed for five years and six months upon being found guilty of rioting and assaulting a mainland Chinese journalist at the airport in August 2019.