A Hong Kong court has found seven prominent politicians and pro-democracy activists guilty of unauthorized assembly for their roles in a peaceful protest that was one of the largest rallies in the Chinese-controlled city in 2019.
Those convicted on Thursday include media mogul Jimmy Lai, as well as Martin Lee, 82, who helped launch the city’s largest opposition Democratic Party in the 1990s and is often referred to as the “Father of Democracy.” Of the former British colony.
Silver-haired Lee and the others sat impassively as District Court Judge Amanda Woodcock delivered her ruling.
“I found after the trial that the prosecution was able to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that all the accused had organized together what amounted to an unauthorized gathering,” the district court judge noted in the full written judgment.
They were also found guilty of knowingly participating in an unauthorized gathering.
Although Hong Kong’s mini-constitution guarantees the right to peaceful assembly, Woodcock added, “restrictions are imposed, including those aimed at preserving public safety and public order, and protecting the rights of others.” .
Sentencing will come later, with some legal experts expecting prison terms of 12 to 18 months. The maximum possible sentence is five years.
The other defendants included prominent lawyer Margaret Ng and veteran Democrats Lee Cheuk-yan, Leung Kwok-hung, Albert Ho and Cyd Ho.
Two others, Au Nok-hin and Leung Yiu-chung had previously pleaded guilty.
‘We will continue the fight’
A small group of supporters displayed banners outside the West Kowloon courthouse, including one that read “Oppose Political Persecution”.
“We will continue the fight,” said Lee Cheuk-yan, 64, just before going to court. “We believe in the people of Hong Kong, in our brothers and sisters in our struggle, and the victory is ours if the people of Hong Kong persist.”
The group of activists were convicted of their involvement in a demonstration held on August 18, 2019. Protest organizers say 1.7 million people marched that day to protest a bill that would have allowed the extradition of criminal suspects to mainland China for trial.
During the trial, defense lawyers argued that freedom of assembly is a constitutional right in Hong Kong and noted that police approved the peaceful protest in the city’s Victoria Park, which turned into an unauthorized march as the number increased to hundreds of thousands.
The prosecution argued that freedom of assembly is not absolute in Hong Kong.
Critics, including Western governments, have condemned the arrests of Lee and other Democrats amid the ongoing crackdown. Some 47 other high-level Democratic activists are face subversion charges under a sweeping national security law, and have for the most part been deprived of bail and are being held.
Sarah Clarke of Al Jazeera, a Hong Kong reporter, said the latest verdicts were a “blow” to the pro-democracy movement.
“Almost all of the main dissenting voices, or opposition figures, are either in exile, in prison or on trial,” she said. “Today, more than 2,400 people have been charged in connection with this crackdown. A democracy activist said the movement will simply have to find other ways to demonstrate its opposition to China.
The United States said on Wednesday that Hong Kong does not justify preferential treatment under the Hong Kong Policy Act, a law that allowed Washington to maintain a special relationship with the city.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a press release that China had “seriously violated the rights and freedoms of people in Hong Kong”, through arbitrary arrests and politically motivated prosecutions as well as “pressure on the independence of the judiciary and the freedom of academics and the press ”.
The 2019 pro-democracy protests were spurred by Beijing’s tightening on the extended freedoms promised to Hong Kong upon its return to Chinese rule in 1997, and plunged the semi-autonomous city into its biggest crisis since the transfer.
The move ultimately failed amid mass arrests, the emergence of the coronavirus pandemic, as well as Beijing’s enactment of the National Security Law.
The legislation, imposed on June 30 last year, punishes anything Beijing considers secession, subversion, terrorism, or collusion with foreign forces up to life in prison.
Lai, the media mogul convicted on Thursday, is detained without bail on charges under the National Security Act.
Since the law was enacted, the government has sought to crush the opposition movement, banned protests and curbed political expression, and revised the city’s electoral system to ensure that only pro-Chinese “patriots” rule Hong Kong.
However, the Chinese and Hong Kong authorities say the security law and electoral reforms are necessary to “restore stability” and solve “deep” problems, and that human rights will be safeguarded.