Hong Kong pro-independence protest leader pleads guilty to assault of police officer

Edward Leung pleaded not guilty to one charge of inciting a riot and two charges of rioting. PHOTO: AFP

HONG KONG (REUTERS) - Hong Kong's high court on Monday (Jan 22) remanded in jail a young protest leader calling for independence from China after he pleaded guilty to assaulting a police officer in the latest case highlighting a new generation of opposition to Chinese rule.

About 130 people, mostly police officers, were hurt in a 2016 Lunar New Year protest when masked activists threw bricks and burned trash cans to vent anger at what they saw as China's encroachment of Hong Kong's culture and autonomy.

On Monday, the former head of radical group Hong Kong Indigenous, Edward Leung, 26, pleaded not guilty to one charge of inciting a riot and two charges of rioting.

Judge Anthea Pang decided to revoke bail for Leung and another defendant, Wong Ka Kui, who pleaded guilty to rioting at the trial, whose proceedings started last Thursday, and for which the court has allotted 80 days.

Rioting carries a maximum jail term of 10 years.

Four other defendants also pleaded not guilty to rioting and other charges.

During the clashes, later labelled a riot by the government, a policeman fired two warning shots in the air, a rare event in Hong Kong. The action aimed "to put the scene under control,"the prosecution said in a court document on Monday.

The former British colony has been governed under a "One Country, Two Systems" arrangement after it returned to Chinese rule in 1997.

But democracy activists say Beijing is increasingly interfering with the city's autonomy, while pro-government figures urge more respect for Beijing's authority.

When a months-long "Occupy" street occupation failed to wrestle more democratic rights from Beijing's Communist Party rulers in 2014, a generation of young activists began pushing for outright independence, a red line for China.

Chinese and Hong Kong authorities have repeatedly condemned the movement, citing the city's mini-constitution, the "Basic Law", which says it is "an inalienable part" of China.

The nascent movement peaked in early 2016, when Leung, then a philosophy student at the University of Hong Kong, lost his bid for a seat in the city's legislature by-election but secured a surprising 15 percent of votes.

But it lost steam after Leung was barred from running again, his two allies who won legislature seats were disqualified over the manner in which they took their oaths, and several protesters were jailed for rioting.

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