A Hong Kong Court Convicts Democracy Activists for Marching in Protest.
Among the defendants are media magnate Jimmy Lai and barristers Martin Lee and Margaret Ng, who are among the city’s most influential activists.
Seven of Hong Kong’s most senior and well-known pro-democracy activists were convicted of illegal assembly on Thursday, as Beijing’s drive to crush the city’s opposition ensnared some of its most senior and well-known figures.
Martin Lee, an 82-year-old barrister dubbed the “father of democracy” in Hong Kong, Jimmy Lai, 73, a media mogul and editor of the staunchly pro-democracy Apple Daily newspaper, and Margaret Ng, 73, a revered barrister and columnist, were convicted in 2019 of engaging in and organizing an illegal march.
Prior to the hearing, several defendants gathered outside the court, carrying a banner reading, “Oppose Political Persecution; Protest Political Suppression.” Within the courthouse, supporters sitting in the gallery chanted, “Keep your spirits up!”
Prosecutions of prominent pro-democracy figures in Hong Kong have been portrayed by their supporters as a major attack on freedom of expression and other civil liberties that were once central to the city’s identity.
Since the city was overwhelmed by anti-government demonstrations in 2019, Hong Kong’s authorities have overseen an extensive crackdown on the pro-democracy movement. Over 2,400 people have been charged as authorities seek to put an end to the uprising that posed the biggest threat to Beijing’s rule in decades.
Beijing has attempted to portray many opposition leaders as disruptive elements collaborating with aggressive international powers in order to weaken Chinese sovereignty. Critics of this view argue that the ruling Communist Party is merely deflecting the Hong Kong people’s genuine democratic ambitions.
Mr. Lee, Mr. Lai, and Albert Ho have been accused by Chinese state media of being members of a “Gang of Four” that sowed trouble in 2019, a charge that runs counter to the mostly leaderless movement on the streets.
Human rights activists slammed the convictions, claiming they were part of an effort to weaken Hong Kong’s long-running fight for democracy.
“This trial was also about the long history, legacy, and sacrifices of the movement’s elder statesmen and women,” said Samuel Chu, managing director of the Hong Kong Democracy Council in Washington, D.C. “It is about diminishing their lifelong contributions to Hong Kong, the movement, workers, grass-roots groups, and to individuals and their professions.”
The case focused on an August 18, 2019 rally attended by hundreds of thousands of people in an anti-government demonstration.
This meeting had been approved by the police. However, what ensued did not. The defendants were charged with leading demonstrators out of Hong Kong Island’s Victoria Park and leading them on a march into the central business district. Although there was no abuse or chaos on the march, prosecutors contended that it violated Hong Kong’s public order ordinance.
Their attorneys contended that escorting demonstrators out of the park, which had swelled to capacity, was important for public safety. Additionally, they said that imprisoning them for participating in a nonviolent march was a draconian application of the rule.
“Of course, we are dissatisfied with the verdict, when all we did was exercise our constitutional rights,” one defendant, labor leader Lee Cheuk-yan, said after the hearing. “However, our conviction serves as a badge of honor for our solidarity with the people of Hong Kong in their struggle for democracy and freedom.”
That summer’s protests began with a proposal to allow extraditions to mainland China but quickly grew to include calls for direct elections and an inquiry into police use of force.
The city’s pro-democracy leaders’ arrest for a peaceful demonstration has caused international outrage. David Perry, a well-known British barrister appointed to direct the prosecution, resigned from the case after intense criticism at home. Mr. Raab, the British foreign secretary, had previously said that Mr. Perry was “pretty mercenary” and was providing a public relations boost to the Chinese government.
The State Department reported Wednesday in an annual report on Hong Kong that the Hong Kong government “did not honor” the right to free assembly guaranteed by local law and that China “dramatically eroded” rights and freedoms in Hong Kong last year by enacting a national security law.
The trial lasted 20 days, more than double the time originally planned. Among the defendants are former legislators Cyd Ho and Leung Kwok-hung. They face up to five years in jail. On April 16, sentences will be handed down.
Au Nok-hin, 33, another former senator, previously pleaded guilty to both charges, while Leung Yiu-chung, 67, pleaded guilty to a single charge of protest participation.
The verdict could set the stage for several trials this year on similar charges of illegal protests.
Additionally, 47 pro-democracy lawmakers and activists have been charged with subversion under the new security law for their alleged involvement in an election primary that prosecutors allege was part of a plot to destabilize the government.
Mr. Lai, the media magnate, was charged separately in a national security case for allegedly lobbying for American sanctions against Hong Kong and Chinese officials.