HONG KONG — A Hong Kong judge has sentenced seven men to prison for their roles in a 2019 mob attack on unarmed people in a subway station, which shocked the city and injured dozens, including pro-democracy protesters.
The defendants were given sentences on Thursday ranging from three and a half to seven years. Their trial was the first in connection with the July 21, 2019, attack in the town of Yuen Long, one of the most contentious episodes of the protests that year.
More than 100 men, wearing white T-shirts and wielding sticks and clubs, stormed the station in Yuen Long, on Hong Kong’s northwestern outskirts, and assaulted people, including passengers on a subway car. Some of those attacked were wearing black, a color often associated with the protests, and were returning from a demonstration.
The protests, which began that June to oppose a bill that would have allowed extraditions to mainland China, had by then grown into an enormous movement that deeply divided the city. Both supporters and opponents had at times engaged in violence.
But the attack in Yuen Long stood out for its brazenness, as well as for the apparent lack of accountability in the immediate aftermath. The police were slow to respond, according to a New York Times reconstruction of the episode; once they did arrive on the scene, they seemed to make little effort to pursue the attackers.
No arrests were made that night, and some police officers were captured on camera talking to some of the men in white, even patting them on the shoulder.
The police have denied any impropriety, though they initially acknowledged some modest shortcomings in their response. They have also blamed the protests for spreading their resources thin that night.
At least 45 people were injured in the attack, according to the city’s hospital authority. Those wounded included Lam Cheuk-ting, who at the time was an opposition lawmaker, and Gwyneth Ho, a journalist. Both of them needed multiple stitches.
The police eventually arrested dozens of suspects, some of whom had ties to organized crime groups known as triads. But in the following months, as pressure grew from Beijing to suppress dissent, the Hong Kong authorities began depicting the incident as a two-sided clash, not an unprovoked attack. The police arrested Mr. Lam last August and accused him of rioting.
In his ruling on Thursday, the judge, Eddie Yip, decisively rejected that version of events.
“They used canes and sticks to beat innocent citizens,” he wrote of the defendants, citing witness testimony and video footage. “People who were trapped in the train carriage didn’t dare try to get past the people in white, who were viciously surrounding the train door holding sticks or canes or throwing objects.”
Judge Yip said that the defendants, who ranged in age from 41 to 63, had ganged up with other men in white to beat people dressed in black, and that one of them, Tang Wai-sum, had appeared to be a leader, at times giving directions. They also “abused the national flag,” the judge said, noting that some had tied miniature versions of the Chinese flag to their sticks.
He added: “This indiscriminate collective mob justice has caused great panic among the public. The court must impose a deterrent sentence on the perpetrators.”
Judge Yip also wrote that it could be “clearly seen” in videos that Mr. Lam, the lawmaker, had been comforting people in the station and telling them that the police had been called — not provoking violence, as defendants had claimed.
Mr. Lam is currently in jail, accused by the authorities of endangering national security by running in an unofficial primary election for the pro-democracy camp. Many lawmakers and pro-democracy activists have been arrested since Beijing imposed a sweeping national security law on the city last year, effectively quashing the protests.
The heaviest sentence, of seven years, that Judge Yip handed down on Thursday went to Mr. Tang, 62. Several of his co-defendants had served jail time after being convicted of extortion, robbery, money laundering or belonging to a triad gang. One other man who had been charged with the seven defendants was acquitted by Judge Yip last month.
In a news conference after the sentencing on Thursday, Mr. Tang’s wife, who did not give her name, said her husband was a “small, ordinary villager, protecting his home.” Alex Yeung, a prominent pro-China YouTube commentator, called on national security officials in Hong Kong to investigate Judge Yip.
Joy Dong and Tiffany May contributed reporting.