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On trial on riot charges, Hong Kong newlyweds prepared for life apart

Credit: REUTERS/TYRONE SIU

For Valentine's Day this year, Henry Tong gave his wife, Elaine To, a photo book. It holds the memories of their life together: their first date six years ago, kissing in front of a pro-democracy "Lennon wall"; the tattooed bands on their ring fingers, symbolizing a bond not easily erased; and their wedding day last year, when he vowed to her, "Not even a nuclear explosion could break us apart."

 (Adds response from Hong Kong's Department of Justice)
    By Jessie Pang
    HONG KONG, July 24 (Reuters) - For Valentine's Day this
year, Henry Tong gave his wife, Elaine To, a photo book. It
holds the memories of their life together: their first date six
years ago, kissing in front of a pro-democracy "Lennon wall";
the tattooed bands on their ring fingers, symbolizing a bond not
easily erased; and their wedding day last year, when he vowed to
her, "Not even a nuclear explosion could break us apart."
    The book doesn't mention the 50 hours that Henry and Elaine
spent in jail in July last year, just four days before their
wedding. Arrested at a pro-democracy protest, the couple were
kept in different cells at the police station, separated by a
long corridor and a large wall.
    Not knowing if they'd get out in time for their wedding, the
couple tried to stay together by shouting across the cells.
    "We couldn't see each other. But if we yelled loud enough,
we could listen to each other's voices," Elaine said.
    Early this year, Henry, 39, spent more than a month putting
together the photo book in secret during the couple's rare times
apart. He wanted Elaine, 42, to have something to remind her of
him in case they were separated again, this time for years.
    Nearly a year after they were first arrested, the newlyweds
were tried on charges of rioting, an offense carrying a penalty
of up to 10 years in jail. The couple spoke to Reuters in the
weeks leading up to the court ruling in their case. On Friday,
they learned their fate.
    Since June of last year, more than 9,000 people have been
arrested during the protests, which saw millions of people take
to the streets with five demands, including retracting the
classification of protesters as "rioters" and full democracy in
the Chinese-ruled territory. More than 650 have been accused of
rioting, one of the most serious charges. Their cases delayed by
the COVID-19 pandemic, the accused are finally facing verdicts
just weeks after China dramatically intensified its crackdown by
imposing new national security legislation on Hong Kong that
includes life in prison for some political crimes.
    Beijing's move has exacerbated concerns among many Hong Kong
residents over the loss of freedoms in the city, including
freedom of speech and the press. Critics say the law marks the
end of Hong Kong's "one country, two systems" governing model,
which afforded the city a high degree of autonomy ever since its
hand-over from British to Chinese rule in 1997. China says the
new legislation targets only a minority of "troublemakers" in
the city, and Hong Kong's chief executive, Carrie Lam, called
opponents of the law "the enemy of the Hong Kong people."
    Lam has defended the crackdown on last year's protesters,
who took to the streets to oppose a bill that would have allowed
extradition of people from Hong Kong to the mainland. "I must
urge everyone once again – don't break the law, especially young
people," she said in May. "There is a heavy price for breaking
the law."
    Much older than the teenagers who came to symbolize the
demonstrations, Henry and Elaine insist they were merely
providing first aid to those who were tear-gassed on that day of
protests last July. The couple, who own a gym in Hong Kong's
Sheung Wan neighborhood, pleaded not guilty. They say they never
went anywhere near the front lines, and never acted violently or
illegally.
    Their lawyer argued in court that there was no direct
evidence proving they were on the street where the alleged riot
happened; CCTV footage showed them in an alley nearby and
leaving the area. The court testimony also showed that only
umbrellas, protective gear, medical supplies and two
walkie-talkies were seized in their arrest.
    The prosecution said in court that even though there was no
evidence showing that the couple was present at the point where
the rioting took place, they shared the goals of those
participating in the rioting. Their gear and the fact they were
running away from the police, the prosecution said, supported
the accusation that they had been involved in rioting.
    The couple's lawyer countered that they were avoiding tear
gas, not running away.
    Henry said he and Elaine "never imagined" they would be
arrested. "We never thought we would need to find a lawyer, or
who would take care of our dogs."
    Elaine cried sometimes when talking about the separation she
felt was sure to come – and fretted over what would happen to
the couple's three dogs, who are like children to them, a source
of both worry and wonder. But she said she believed it was her
responsibility to stand up for Hong Kong’s future.
    "When I look back at my life, what made me proud?" she said.
"I really think that even though I was arrested, I don't regret
standing up. I am scared of being jailed, but I don't regret
it."

    GOING THROUGH FIRE AND WATER TOGETHER
    During the demonstrations, protesters gave Henry the
nickname Fu Tong, which means "to go through water." Elaine was
nicknamed Dou Fo, which means "to go through fire." Literally,
the names mean they'll go through fire and water together.
    They were among the first to be charged with rioting during
the protests last year, arrested with a 17-year-old named
Natalie Lee. The couple also faced an additional charge of
possessing a radio apparatus without a valid license.
    Henry and Elaine said they didn't know Natalie before the
arrest. Police were firing rounds of tear gas at the time they
found Natalie in an alley, having a hard time breathing and
barely able to open her eyes, they said. After helping Natalie
to rinse her eyes with saline water, the couple said they tried
to leave the scene. The trio were arrested by riot police in
front of a barbed-wire fence and were tried together. Natalie,
who also pleaded not guilty, declined to comment when contacted
by Reuters ahead of the court ruling.
    Their detention at the police station was one of the
toughest moments in their relationship, the couple said. They've
been inseparable since they started dating in 2014, when
protesters paralyzed major roads of the financial hub for 79
days late that year demanding full democracy for the city.
    All Henry could think about was their wedding, just days
away. "The scariest thing about the arrest was that I couldn't
get married on time. The police officers kept telling us that
there was no plan to grant us bail," he said. "The first thing I
told my lawyer was to make sure we could be bailed out and get
married."
    Once they secured bail and were finally out, they were
overwhelmed by all the things they needed to handle – comforting
their dogs; apologizing to their clients for canceling gym
classes while they were being held; finding a suit for Henry to
wear in court.
    Waking up the morning after their release, they were nervous
about appearing in court for the first time. And then they saw
the scene outside the courthouse.
    Even with a typhoon approaching the city and rain lashing
down, hundreds of supporters had gathered outside Eastern Court,
some of them covered only by plastic bags, to show solidarity.
    Many held placards that read, "There are no rioters, only
tyranny," and kept chanting "Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of
our time," until all 44 people who appeared in court that day
were granted bail in the afternoon.
    Henry and Elaine didn't know all of the people who had
gathered to support them, and many of the supporters didn't know
them.
    "It had nothing to do with them, but they stayed put and
waited for us under the tropical rainstorm," Henry said, wiping
tears away. "The scene really overwhelmed us. We stopped feeling
nervous by the time we entered the court."
    
    'I WILL CONTINUE TO LOVE YOU FOREVER'
    Four days later, Elaine wore her white wedding dress at a
tiny marriage hall of the Cotton Tree Drive Marriage Registry in
the Central district.
    They only expected four people, including the two witnesses,
to come to their wedding ceremony. Henry didn't even invite his
family, because the couple had received online threats that
someone would gatecrash and spoil their wedding, and guests
might be doxxed online.
    To their surprise, dozens of family members, friends and
people they hadn't even met before showed up that day.
Journalists also came and live-streamed their ceremony on social
media as if it were a royal wedding, not of two people accused
of a serious crime.
    "The general impression of Hong Kongers toward criminals is
very bad, and rioting is a very serious charge, but they still
came. It really showcases the love of Hong Kongers," Henry said.
"I am very touched and proud."
    When the wedding was about to begin, an older stranger
suddenly opened the door.
    Just as Henry and Elaine thought he was there to interfere
with the wedding, he instead gave them traditional red envelopes
of money as a gift, saying, "Congratulations. Congratulations."
    Rather than exchange rings, they tattooed a pair of boxing
gloves with Mexican-style, ornamental bride-and-groom skulls on
their toned, muscled arms linked by two strings to the tattooed
bands on their left ring fingers. It symbolised how they came
across each other through a Thai boxing class and fell in love
until death do them part.
    "If you want to wash away the tattoo, you need to go through
a lot of pain; it's very similar to the meaning of marriage,"
Henry said.
    After signing the papers, each gave a short speech as they
held each other's hands tightly.
    "Although there are some obstacles in the road, I have
finally become Mrs. Tong. I will go through the upheaval with
you," Elaine vowed during the ceremony as she wept.
    "It's not easy to find someone in life with the same ideals,
values, and willing to go through ups and downs with you in the
time of chaos... I will continue to love you forever," Henry
said before they exchanged a kiss.
    Just a week after the ceremony, street posters with their
wedding photo and the words "trash teens" – a derogatory term
hurled at pro-democracy protesters – were pasted near their gym
and on lamp posts from Sheung Wan more than a mile to the
Admiralty district. But neither of them took it seriously, they
say. In fact, Elaine laughs about the teen description: "That
means we are still young."
    
    'YOU ARE NEVER ALONE'
    Their trial was scheduled to start in March but was
postponed because of the pandemic. The 20 days the court took to
hear their case exceeded the original estimate by 10 days.
    Sharron Fast is a lecturer in media law at the University of
Hong Kong and once taught criminal law at the law school there.
She says the city's riot law is dated and hasn't been reformed
since 1976.
    "The elements of the offense are that as soon as three or
more people in an unlawful demonstration commit certain acts,
that is to say a 'breach of the peace,' they are said to be
riotously assembled," Fast said. "Everyone present is deemed to
be a party to the riot, regardless of the role he or she
played."
    She said that the large number of protest-related cases
means that achieving justice may be difficult. "It is hard to
imagine that all these individuals will receive adequate due
process in a sense that the trials are very time-consuming on a
case-by-case basis," she said.
    Carrie Lam's office didn't respond to questions from Reuters
about the judicial process.
    The Hong Kong Department of Justice told Reuters it would
study the case to determine if any "follow-up action is called
for".
    Henry sometimes blamed himself for the couple's legal
predicament.
    "I am really thankful to her. It was never her idea. I am
more stubborn," he said. "She didn't blame me for getting us
into the current situation."
    The psychological pressure of the past year has left Henry
plagued by nightmares. On the evening before the court ruling,
he was gloomy. "Right now it's like watching my own funeral,
watching people watching my death," he said. "Except I am not
dead. It's very hard."
    The court case has also hurt the couple's business. They say
they've lost two-thirds of their income because of political
differences with their clients.
    "Most of our remaining clients are supportive of us. They
told us: 'It's OK. Although you were charged, we will still
come,'" Elaine said.
    Whenever they felt defeated, they took out the wedding gifts
and cards they received and went through the messages inscribed
on them.
    One of their favorites was a drawing that three children did
of Elaine in a wedding gown and Henry in a wedding suit with a
yellow helmet, the color denoting support for the protest
movement. They've hung it up at the entrance of their gym.
    "Thank you for fighting for justice for the young
generation, you are never alone, you have us who will stand with
you. Happy Marriage! Proud of Mr. and Mrs. Tong!" the children
wrote.
    "They remind us that we should keep going," Henry said.
    Referring to the new security law imposed by Beijing, he
added: "Even though Hong Kong doesn't have a future anymore, I
am still hopeful. We are not alone."
    In the days leading up to the verdict, the couple counted
down their time at the gym, where they spent most of their days
building their dream together.
    They asked a friend to take over the company. They packed
their boxing gloves and two large plastic sheets with the
company logo, "Wild Gym," into bags.
    "It's not the place that made it special, but the time we
spent together that made it special," Henry said.
    They also treasured moments like running and walking their
dogs, whom they adopted three years ago: a poodle named Ah Mui
(Sister) and two mongrels named Fa Fa (Flower) and Cho Cho
(Grass).
    Like worried parents, they mentioned their dogs again and
again when talking about the specter of imprisonment, worrying
the pets would stop eating without them, like when the couple
were detained at the police station.
    They made plans for the dogs. Elaine's mother, who has been
supportive of them during their legal troubles, would look after
Ah Mui, because the poodle has skin allergies that need to be
taken care of.
    Fa Fa and Cho Cho are both large dogs, and the couple
worried that Elaine's mother might get injured when she walked
them. So they planned to send them to their dog trainer's pet
hotel where they would stay with other dogs to ease their
separation anxiety.
    Elaine tattooed all three pets on her right arm in case she
was imprisoned, saying, "At least I can see my dogs."
    Elaine's mother, Ann, 60, said she sometimes wished she
could go back in time and change everything. She noticed that
they became quiet at home as the verdict approached, sometimes
sitting in dead silence, but she didn't dare ask much. She broke
down, sobbing, when she talked about her daughter and
son-in-law.
    "Mommy really supports both of you," she said she told them.
"No matter what happens, I will support both of you and take
care of the dogs."
    Henry hoped the couple could remain strong.
    "I hope that no matter how bad the situation will be, we
won't lose faith. I hope our love can continue in this chaotic
time," he said. "These words are not just for our marriage but
also for Hong Kong."
    On Friday, about 100 people gathered outside the court to
support the couple ahead of the ruling in their case. Inside,
Elaine cried while Henry sat silently, staring at the wall.
    In an instant, all the couple's dread about a life apart
behind bars melted away. As they stood in the courthouse, the
judge announced they had been acquitted of the rioting charge.
So had Natalie Lee. The couple were found guilty of the lesser
offense of possessing a wireless radio without a permit and
fined $1,300 each. They were free to go.
    Elaine and Henry wept and embraced. Then Elaine hugged her
mother, apologizing for the worry she had caused her.
    "They are good people," said Ann. "They did nothing wrong."
    Henry said they would head home immediately to take care of
the dogs, while Elaine said they would start to unpack their gym
equipment and get back to work.
    In the days before the verdict and sentencing, the couple
had paged through the photo book that Henry made for Elaine.
    On the last page, he had written, "happily ever after," like
every fairy tale.

    <^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^
Hong Kong’s tough top cop overshadows embattled leader Lam as
China cracks down    https://www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/hongkong-protests-security-police/
The Revolt of Hong Kong: China's freest city fights for its
future    https://www.reuters.com/investigates/section/hongkong-protests/
    ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^>
 (Reporting by Jessie Pang in Hong Kong. Edited by Kari Howard
and Peter Hirschberg.)
 ((Jessie.Pang@thomsonreuters.com;))

Keywords: HONGKONG SECURITY/COUPLE (UPDATE 1, PIX)

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