HONG KONG - A pro-democracy Hong Kong lawmaker who was recently removed from parliament after a Beijing intervention was cleared Monday of misconduct in a case he described as politically motivated.
Leung Kwok-hung - known locally as "Long Hair" - is a veteran activist from the League of Social Democrats, and had been charged by the city's corruption bureau over a payment received while in public office from a high-profile anti-Beijing media tycoon.
He was accused of "wilfully and intentionally" failing to declare HK$250,000 (S$43,400) from the founder of Apple Daily newspaper Jimmy Lai between 2012 and 2016. The paper is highly critical of Beijing.
Judge Alex Lee acquitted him "on benefit of doubt" Monday, saying the prosecution had failed to prove the money was a personal payment to Leung in his capacity as lawmaker, rather than a payment to his party.
Leung had received the payment into his personal bank account but the defence argued it was a party donation, which meant it would not need to be declared.
"Despite the suspicions I have of the defendant's conduct, I am not satisfied that the prosecution has proven its case against him beyond reasonable doubt," Lee said in the judgement.
Leung's trial came at a time when many fear semi-autonomous Hong Kong's freedoms are under threat from Chinese authorities.
Two weeks ago, he was one of four pro-democracy legislators disqualified from parliament by the High Court over changing their oaths of office to reflect their frustrations with Chinese authorities last year.
Their removal came after an unprecedented intervention from Beijing demanding oaths be taken in a "solemn and sincere" manner.
A number of leading democracy campaigners are currently facing court cases, including over their participation in 2014's mass pro-democracy Umbrella Movement rallies.
After his acquittal, Leung, 61, raised his arms outside the district court as supporters gathered round him.
"I hope the democracy camp will continue to stand firm in the coming years," said Leung, wearing a T-shirt bearing the words "civil disobedience".
However, he said the ruling did not convince him the city's judiciary was safe, describing it as "under attack" by political forces.
Leung's activism has landed him in jail several times.
In 2014, he spent four weeks behind bars for criminal damage and disorderly behaviour during a political protest, and in 2002, he was jailed for two weeks after protesting inside the legislative council chambers before he became a lawmaker.
Hong Kong was returned to China by Britain in 1997 and is ruled under a "one country, two systems" deal which allows it much greater liberties than seen on the mainland.
But there are serious concerns that an ever more assertive Beijing is trampling over the agreement.