By Venus Wu
HONG KONG (Reuters) - A Hong Kong court on Friday found a prominent independence activist in the Chinese-ruled territory guilty of rioting, a verdict that could see him put behind bars for up to 12 years.
The closely watched case concerned an overnight protest in 2016 that turned violent, injuring about 130 people, mostly police, when masked activists threw bricks and burned trash cans to vent anger at what they saw as China's encroachment on the former British colony's culture and autonomy.
The prosecution argued that Edward Leung played a leading role in inciting what it called a riot, but Leung said he was only trying to support hawkers selling street food and protect people on the scene when police used force.
Leung's lawyer, Edwin Choy, said he was unhappy with the verdict but had not discussed an appeal.
"He should be cleared of the charge (of rioting)," Choy said. "His speech and action ... did not amount to a breach of peace."
The jury, after about 25 hours of deliberation, cleared him of inciting a riot and failed to reach a decision on another rioting charge. Each rioting charge carries a maximum term of 10 years.
He had earlier pleaded guilty to one charge of assaulting a police officer, which carries a maximum sentence of two years.
Sitting in the dock, Leung, 26, tilted his head back, closed his eyes and smiled when he was cleared of the incitement charge. Cheers erupted from a crowd of at least 50 people watching the trial streamed live outside of the courtroom.
Leung later appeared glassy-eyed and wiped his eyes, but kept his smile as he was remanded in custody.
Another defendant, Lo Kin-man, who was also found guilty of rioting, cried uncontrollably. Three other defendants also cried after they were cleared of all charges.
A hearing on mitigation for the pair has been set for Monday before the court decides on a date for sentencing.
LAW "IN NEED OF REFORM"
Hong Kong law defines a riot as an unlawful assembly of three or more people where any person "commits a breach of the peace".
This offence, which carries a maximum penalty of 10 years behind bars, was last amended in 1970, a few years after a months-long pro-Communist riot against British rule killed at least 50 people, including children.
British-based NGO Hong Kong Watch said the law was "urgently in need of reform because it is being used to disproportionately punish political protesters in Hong Kong".
Hong Kong reverted to Chinese rule in 1997 under a "one country, two systems" arrangement that promises it a high degree of autonomy and freedoms not enjoyed in mainland China, including an independent judiciary.
Leung was a leader of Hong Kong Indigenous, a political group that organizes anti-China protests and advocates "localism", promoting a local Hong Kong identity instead of a Chinese one.
Another leader of the group, Ray Wong, was also charged with rioting, but he had skipped town.
Leung's rise and fall echo the ebbs and flows of the city's radical youth activism following the pro-democracy "Umbrella Movement" protests in 2014 that saw major roads occupied for months.
He also supported and promoted Hong Kong independence and Friday's verdict is likely to deal a further blow to the movement that has lost much of its steam amid a series of court cases fought by activists and lost.
Communist Party leaders in Beijing have repeatedly slammed calls for independence, fearful of the idea catching on in the mainland. President Xi Jinping warned last year that any attempt to endanger China's sovereignty would be an act that crosses a "red line".
Only 3 percent of some 1,300 university students polled in March supported Hong Kong independence, while about 12 percent backed "localism", according to a survey conducted by the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
Most students, over 50 percent of them, said they did not have any political leaning.
A different study conducted by the university in 2016 showed that one in six people, or 17 percent, supported independence, while 58 percent opposed it. The poll surveyed about 1,000 people over 15.
(Reporting by Venus Wu; Editing by James Pomfret and Nick Macfie)