HONG KONG — A newlywed couple who were among the first to be charged with the serious crime of rioting in connection with the protests in Hong Kong were found not guilty on Friday. A teenager was also acquitted.
The judge in the case said there was no direct evidence against the defendants, who were arrested on July 28 near the site of clashes between protesters and the police. They could have been sent to prison for seven years if convicted.
The couple, Elaine To and Henry Tong, who run a gym, made headlines in Hong Kong when they got married in August, days after the charges were brought against them.
“Our emotions were verging on a breakdown before the verdict,” Mr. Tong told reporters outside the courthouse on Friday. “We did have a sigh of relief after they cleared us.” The couple bowed and held hands as supporters chanted, “There are no rioters, only tyranny!”
Hundreds of people have been charged with rioting since the antigovernment protests began in June of last year. When the police began making arrests on that charge, it was seen as an escalation in the authorities’ response, because of the length of the potential sentences. Dropping the characterization of protesters as “rioters” has been one of the movement’s main demands.
But since then, the potential consequences of protesting in Hong Kong have become much more grave, with China’s imposition last month of a harsh national security law on the semiautonomous city.
The law, which targets political activity and even speech that is seen as challenging Beijing’s rule, gives mainland Chinese security forces sweeping powers to operate in the city and in some cases authorizes life sentences — even the possibility of being tried on the mainland, where the rights and legal protections guaranteed by Hong Kong’s independent judicial system are unknown.
In the case that ended in acquittal on Friday, prosecutors had noted that all three defendants had worn black, like many in the protest movement, when they were arrested. Ms. To and Mr. Tong were also carrying medical supplies.
But that did not indicate that the couple had participated in a riot, said Judge Anthony Kwok of Hong Kong’s District Court, who handed down the verdict — only that they were working as volunteer medics, as numerous people did during the protests.
The third defendant, a student named Natalie Lee, who was reported by Hong Kong news outlets to be 17 years old, had also been wearing a hard hat and had wrapped plastic film around her arms, to protect her skin from tear gas. But Judge Kwok accepted the argument that while many protesters wore such gear, it did not pose a public threat.
“Unlike the rioting cases handled by Hong Kong’s courts in the past, there is no direct evidence in this case,” the judge wrote. He added that defendants in criminal cases are always presumed innocent under Hong Kong’s common-law system.
Rioting can carry a 10-year sentence in Hong Kong, but the penalty is limited to seven years if the case is heard in the District Court, as opposed to the High Court.
The three defendants were also acquitted of unlawful assembly. Ms. To and Mr. Tong were found guilty of possessing radio communication devices without a license, and were each fined $1,290.
“We won’t celebrate because there are many people yet to have a fair ruling,” Mr. Tong said. “We hope to celebrate with everyone after they have all had a fair ruling.”
In May, a 22-year-old protester was sentenced to four years in prison after pleading guilty to rioting. Last month, a student was found not guilty of the charge, the first demonstrator to be acquitted of rioting in connection with the unrest last year.
As of June 30, when the national security law took effect, 9,216 people had been arrested in Hong Kong in connection with the protests, which began in response to a bill that would have allowed extradition to mainland China.
Of those arrested, 1,972 have been formally charged, 653 of them on rioting charges, according to the Hong Kong police, who have been accused by critics of making indiscriminate arrests.