A court in Hong Kong has acquitted student pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong and three others of obstructing police officers during a 2014 protest at which they burned a ruling Chinese Communist Party policy document on the city's political future.
Wong, 19, who now heads the fledgling political party Demosisto and former student federation head Nathan Law, 23, were accused of obstructing police when they burned Beijing's June 2014 white paper on Hong Kong.
They were acquitted on Tuesday by Kowloon's Eastern district court alongside League of Social Democrats vice chairman Raphael Wong, 27, and People Power lawmaker Albert Chan, 61.
"While [the defendants] tried to stop a policeman from putting out the fire, their action only made it difficult for the officer to extinguish the flames," presiding magistrate Lee Siu-ho told the court.
"Though [his] behavior was inappropriate, the court cannot be sure [Wong] intentionally obstructed the officers," Lee said, rejecting Wong’s application for legal costs.
Lee said the prosecution had failed to prove the charge that the activists had deliberately sought to prevent the police moving forward, as they burned the document.
Video footage of the protest shot by the League of Social Democrats showed police constables trying to put out the fire caused by the burning copies of the white paper.
However, Raphael Wong was granted expenses of HK$68.90 (U.S. $8.87), a satirical reference to a Hong Kong chief executive Leung Chun-ying, who was voted in with just 689 votes from a 1,200 Beijing-backed election committee.
Politically motivated arrests
Speaking to journalists after the hearing, the four activists said the prosecution was politically motivated, citing their arrest and charging some 13 months after the protest, after Wong and Law played a key role in the 79-day Occupy Central pro-democracy movement that blocked key highways in a bid for universal suffrage.
Joshua Wong told reporters after the hearing: "The government should bear the responsibility for whole of the trial. [They] just wasted time and resources."
Joshua Wong has previously been prosecuted on a similar charge during the clearance of the last of the 79-day Umbrella Movement occupiers from Kowloon's Mong Kok district, but the case was later dismissed.
Raphael Wong said he welcomed the ruling, which was "fairly just," but said the four had little to celebrate.
"I think things are going to get a whole lot worse in the future, because I don't see how relations between the police and the public are going to improve," he said.
Beijing's June 10, 2014 white paper issued a strong reminder that it rules Hong Kong, and was published as political activists in the former British colony stepped up a campaign for fully democratic elections in 2017.
The city was promised a "high degree of autonomy" under the terms of its 1997 return to Chinese rule, within the "one country, two systems" framework agreed between British and Chinese officials and enshrined in its mini-constitution, the Basic Law.
However, China's cabinet, the State Council, said such autonomy was still subject to the will of Beijing.
"The high degree of autonomy of Hong Kong is not full autonomy, nor is it decentralized power," the State Council said in the white paper burned by Wong and the others.
"It is the power to run local affairs as authorized by the central leadership," it said, adding: "There is no such thing as 'residual power.'"
‘Fake universal suffrage’
After the end of the Occupy movement, Hong Kong lawmakers dealt a death blow to Beijing's Aug. 31 electoral reform package in a humiliating defeat for Hong Kong's chief executive Leung Chun-ying and for Chinese officials.
Members of the city's Legislative Council (LegCo) voted against the bill by 28 votes to eight in June 2015, leaving the city with existing electoral arrangements still in place.
The bill would have allowed all of Hong Kong's five million eligible voters to cast a ballot in the 2017 race for the next chief executive, but would have limited the slate to candidates approved by Beijing.
Supporters of the 79-day Occupy Central movement had campaigned against it as "fake universal suffrage."
Reported by Wen Yuqing for RFA's Cantonese Service and by Xin Lin for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.