HONG KONG – Jimmy Lai, a pro-democracy media figure, and several of Hong Kong’s best-known opposition fighters were sentenced on Friday to eight to 18 months’ imprisonment for holding an unauthorized peaceful protest.
Supporters of the defendants say law enforcement is the latest sign of the fundamental transformation Beijing wanted to impose on Hong Kong. Until recently, the city has long been a bastion of free speech. Now the sentences send an unmistakable message that activism poses serious risk to even the most internationally recognized opposition activists.
The court sentenced Mr. Lai, 73, a media tycoon who founded Apple Daily, an aggressively pro-democracy newspaper, to 12 months in prison. Martin Lee, an 82-year-old lawyer often referred to as Hong Kong’s “father of democracy,” has been given an 11-month suspended sentence, which means he would avoid being put behind bars if he were in the next year is not convicted of any other crime 2 years.
The ruling Chinese Communist Party has been sentenced to the terms of both Mr. Lee and Mr. Lai, which it has long considered thorns. Now they can be classified as criminals, which strengthens resistance to foreign criticism and American sanctions against the crackdown on Hong Kong. For Mr. Lai, this could mark the start of a greater legal threat and potentially a longer term as he faces charges under a national security law imposed by Beijing last year
Her supporters denounced the sentences. “It’s excessive, completely disproportionate. What did they do to deserve such severe punishments? “Said Fernando Cheung, a former lawmaker. “It was a peaceful demonstration for the public to show people’s discontent. All these political leaders did was go with the people. “
The judgments are the latest escalation in a broader repression that has effectively silenced the political opposition and crippled their prospects.
Dozens of pro-democracy politicians are charged with subversion under a tough national security law. China has overhauled the Hong Kong electoral system to consolidate the power of the pro-Beijing establishment. Protests have been largely ruled out during the pandemic and self-censorship in the media and the arts, which are under heavy official pressure, is a growing concern.
Over a period of months in 2019, hundreds of thousands took part in anti-government demonstrations to pose one of the greatest challenges to the Communist Party in decades. The penalties imposed on Friday, in addition to the measures already taken against dissent, are likely to make participation in such protests more difficult in the future.
“It is very clear that the approach has changed radically, not just from the courts and police,” said Sharron Fast, a lecturer in media law at the University of Hong Kong. “The focus is on deterrence. The focus is on punishment. And with large assemblies, the risk is very high. “
The defendants were charged with a march on August 18, 2019, following a gathering in Victoria Park on Hong Kong Island. The rally in the park had been approved by the police, but the authorities, citing the violence at previous protests, had not approved plans for protesters to march about two miles to the government headquarters thereafter.
Hundreds of thousands gathered in the summer rain. And when the defendants marched out of the park after the rally behind a banner denouncing the use of force by the police during the protests, the crowd followed. While prosecutors recognized that there had been no violence other than a single protester stepping on traffic cones, they cited the tense atmosphere of the period, when police anger was high and widespread traffic disruptions occurred in support of the prosecution .
Mr. Lee, who was the founder of the city’s first Democracy Party and also helped draft the mini-constitution for the territory, made his life’s work advocating civil and political rights in Hong Kong. He has traveled the world including many trips to Washington to stand up for this cause. Such internationally oriented activism is now prohibited under national security law.
Mr. Lai, the media mogul, was smuggled into Hong Kong from mainland China as a child and worked his way up from factory worker to clothing company tycoon. He then invested his wealth in tabloid-style crusade publications, which the authorities in Beijing and Hong Kong sharply criticized.
Mr. Lai has also faced a fraud case and allegations of collusion with a foreign country under the security law for allegedly demanding sanctions against Hong Kong. In a separate hearing on Friday, prosecutors added two other national security charges, accusing Mr. Lai of conspiracy to commit subversion and obstruct justice.
In the case of the illegal gathering, the court rejected defensive arguments that the post-rally procession was necessary to help protesters get out of the crowded park safely, or that possible detention for a non-violent march violated freedom of expression and assembly would traditionally be protected in Hong Kong.
Judge Amanda Woodcock said on April 1st that Hong Kong recognizes the right to peaceful assembly, but the law sets limits to ensure security, order and the rights of others. Refraining from prosecution just because a demonstration was peaceful “would turn the law off teeth and ridicule it,” she wrote in her verdict.
Leung Kwok-hung, an activist, was sentenced to 18 months in prison, the heaviest sentence. Lee Cheuk-yan, a union leader, was sentenced to 12 months in prison and Cyd Ho, an activist, was sentenced to eight months. Albert Ho and Margaret Ng, two prominent lawyers, received suspended sentences. All of the defendants, with the exception of Mr. Lai, served in the Hong Kong Legislature.
Speaking to the court before the sentencing, Ms. Ng said that she believed the rule of law should be defended not only in court and in lawmakers, but also by joining those who choose to demonstrate.
“I stand for the good servant of the law, but the first of the people,” she said. “For the law must serve the people, not the people, the law.”
The defendants faced up to five years in prison for organizing and attending an unauthorized gathering.
Mr. Lai, Lee Cheuk-yan and Yeung Sum, the former leader of the Hong Kong Democratic Party, pleaded guilty to another charge of illegal gathering last week relating to a separate march on August 31, 2019. Protests turned into widespread violence.
Mr Lai said in a letter to his colleagues at Apple Daily this week to be careful because “freedom of speech is dangerous work now”.
“The situation in Hong Kong is getting creepier,” he wrote. “The era is falling apart before us, so it is time for us to stand with our heads held high.”