The storming of Hong Kong’s legislative complex during the 2019 protests was “not an impulsive act,” an activist convicted of rioting has said in his mitigation plea.

Using force to enter the Legislative Council (LegCo) on July 1, 2019, was a “desperate outcry” by protesters who felt that peaceful demonstrations alone were not capable of putting a stop to a since-axed extradition bill, activist Owen Chow told District Judge Li Chi-ho on Monday in a mitigation hearing.

Owen Chow
Hong Kong activist Owen Chow. Photo: Owen Chow, via Facebook.

Chow and another activist Ventus Lau, neither of whom had legal representations, gave their mitigation speeches on Monday after pleading guilty last year to rioting inside the city’s legislature more than four years ago.

Protests erupted in June 2019 over a since-axed extradition bill. They escalated into sometimes violent displays of dissent against police behaviour, amid calls for democracy and anger over Beijing’s encroachment. Demonstrators demanded an independent probe into police conduct, amnesty for those arrested and a halt to the characterisation of protests as “riots.” 

The key date in Hong Kong’s months-long unrest saw protesters storming the government building in Admiralty by breaking glass windows and doors and scrawling protest slogans on the walls. Some also sprayed black paint on Hong Kong’s emblem inside the legislative chamber, while others vandalised the portraits of previous legislative presidents.

Chow on Monday admitted that he had sprayed slogans on the walls inside the legislative complex, torn up three copies of the Basic Law and helped put up a banner which read “There are no rioters, only tyranny” inside the chamber.

media journalists legco storming july 1 colonial flag
Protesters defaced the emblem of Hong Kong, spray-painted slogans, and unfurled the colonial-era flag. Photo: May James.

Most protesters who stormed the LegCo building were “fearful,” according to Chow, who said that their actions had escalated because they felt that peaceful and lawful means would not stop the government from pushing the controversial bill forward.

“Riot is the language of the unheard,” Chow said, quoting American civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr.

“[Entering LegCo] was not an impulsive act, but rather a desperate outcry by those who felt that they were left with no other options,” he added in Cantonese.

Chow said the storming of LegCo was a milestone in the 2019 unrest, symbolising a “direct exercise of political rights” by Hongkongers. It was also an act of resistance against what he described as a system that continued to suppress public opinion.

legco storming Monday July 1
Photo: May James.

“The court is not a place for you to express discontent towards the political system,” the judge said, interrupting Chow.

Lau told the court that he did not take part in the clashes on July 1, 2019. He went to the LegCo building out of concern that there would be “bloody incidents” and said he wanted to “minimise casualties” that evening.

Lau said he only took “defensive gear” handed out by demonstrators at the scene, including a cycling helmet and protective goggles. His helmet was very recognisable and he had no intention of hiding his identity, the activist told the court.

Lau said he had temporarily left Hong Kong after his protest-related arrests, and had thought about not returning to the city. But he decided to face his criminal liabilities in the end, because he “did not want to spend [his] whole life unable to return to the city [he loves].”

july 7 china extradition kowloon rail
Ventus Lau. Photo: Holmes Chan/HKFP.

Lau’s mitigation plea was stopped multiple times by the judge, who said the activist’s speech showed an inclination of “expressing [his] political stance.” The court was not a platform for Lau to make political statements, the judge warned.

“If you let me choose 100 more times, I would still choose to enter [the LegCo],” Lau said in Cantonese.

The activist, who has been remanded in custody for more than three years for a separate national security case, said he had missed a lot of important milestones since being detained. He felt that his loved ones were being “punished” alongside him, including his girlfriend of nine years, who had to “run around” for him every day while he was in custody.

“I just want to be a competent boyfriend when get out,” he said.

Both Lau and Chow are among 47 pro-democracy figures facing up to life imprisonment over an alleged conspiracy to commit subversion in connection with an unofficial legislative primary election held in July 2020.

47 democrats
Activists Owen Chow (second from left) and Ventus Lau (fourth from left) hold up hand gestures as they get on a Correctional Services vehicle with other charged democrats on March 3, 2021. Photo: Studio Incendo.

Lau is awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty in the landmark national security case, while Chow is waiting for a verdict after facing trial that exceeded 100 days. The court finished hearing closing arguments in December last year, but three handpicked judges said that “no guarantees” could be made as to whether a verdict would be delivered in three to four months as anticipated.

Beijing inserted national security legislation directly into Hong Kong’s mini-constitution in June 2020 following a year of pro-democracy protests and unrest. It criminalised subversion, secession, collusion with foreign forces and terrorist acts – broadly defined to include disruption to transport and other infrastructure. The move gave police sweeping new powers and led to hundreds of arrests amid new legal precedents, while dozens of civil society groups disappeared. The authorities say it restored stability and peace to the city, rejecting criticism from trade partners, the UN and NGOs.

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Ho Long Sze Kelly is a Hong Kong-based journalist covering politics, criminal justice, human rights, social welfare and education. As a Senior Reporter at Hong Kong Free Press, she has covered the aftermath of the 2019 extradition bill protests and the Covid-19 pandemic extensively, as well as documented the transformation of her home city under the Beijing-imposed national security law.

Kelly has a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Hong Kong, with a second major in Politics and Public Administration. Prior to joining HKFP in 2020, she was on the frontlines covering the 2019 citywide unrest for South China Morning Post’s Young Post. She also covered sports and youth-related issues.