A Hong Kong court has convicted seven prominent pro-democracy advocates, including lawyer Martin Lee and media tycoon Jimmy Lai, of unlawful assembly for their roles in organizing an anti-government protest.
The convictions on Thursday come amid a general crackdown on dissent in Hong Kong and just days after Chinese officials approved a major overhaul of the its electoral system that gives Beijing near-total control in choosing the territory’s leaders.
Leung Kwok-hung, a former Hong Kong lawmaker known as “Long Hair,” was also among those convicted.
“Shame on political prosecution! Peaceful demonstration is not a crime,” Leung shouted after the conviction, according to the South China Morning Post.
Others found guilty were Margaret Ng, Lee Cheuk-yan, Albert Ho, and Cyd Ho — all veterans of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement.
Their next court appearance is scheduled for April 16, when mitigation pleas will be heard in an effort to reduce their sentences, which could amount to several years in prison.
Two others, former pro-democracy lawmakers Au Nok-hin and Leung Yiu-chung, pleaded guilty in February.
The defendants were granted bail on condition they hand over travel documents and not leave Hong Kong. However, SCMP reported that Lai, Leung Kwok-hung, and Au will remain in custody because of separate legal issues.
The trial, held in District Court in West Kowloon, focused on what prosecutors said was an unauthorized procession on Aug. 18, 2019.
That rally — one of dozens in 2019 — drew hundreds of thousands of people. It began as an approved rally in the city’s Victoria Park but later moved to Hong Kong’s Central district, in what prosecutors say was an illegal expansion of the protest.
“So on this day, in a very difficult situation in Hong Kong, political retaliation is on us,” Lee Cheuk-yan said ahead of his conviction, according to The Associated Press.
“We will still march on no matter what lies in the future. 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 are persistent,” he said.
Cyd Ho, of the Labour Party, said the verdict highlighted the loss of freedom of expression in Hong Kong and that “the collapse” of its political framework invited “a hotbed for corruption,” according to the Post.
The defense argued that even though defendants lacked a permit to move the march, they were simply leading participants out of the park to avoid overcrowding. Prosecutors said that crowd control was used as a pretext for expanding the scope of the rally.
In her ruling, Judge Amanda Woodcock found that there was no evidence that exit routes from the park had been blocked or that the park was dangerously overcrowded. Instead, she said the seven intended to stage an unlawful event.
“I am sure this public procession was not about dispersal of crowds. That was a description used to defy the law and circumvent the ban. This intention was vocalised repeatedly and publicly days before the public meeting. It was only a dispersal plan in name, and the truth is it was a planned unauthorised assembly,” Woodcock wrote in her judgement.
In her ruling, Woodcock acknowledged that Hong Kong’s Basic Law — a legal framework that China agreed to abide by when it took control of the former British colony in 1997 — guarantees the right to peaceful assembly, but that “restrictions are imposed, including those for preserving public safety and public order, and protecting the rights of others.”
Ahead of the decision, supporters and some of the defendants gathered outside the court, shouting “Oppose political persecution” and reiterating a key slogan of the protests: “Five demands, not one less.”
Lee, Ng and Lai — the founder of the Apple Daily newspaper that is critical of Beijing — were among 15 arrested nearly a year ago on the charges of organizing illegal protests.
Lai was arrested again in August along with several others, including both his sons, for allegedly violating Beijing’s newly-imposed national security law. He was arrested a third time in December on fraud charges unrelated to last summer’s protests. He has been held ever since then, except for briefly receiving bail before the order was reversed on appeal.
Lee is 82, Lai and Ng are 73 and the other defendants are all in their 60s, reflecting a sharp contrast with Hong Kong’s high-profile student protest leaders, three of whom were recently sentenced to several months in jail for their role in the protests.
Some 47 other high-profile activists are facing subversion charges under the national security law – most of whom have been denied bail, according to the AP.
The Hong Kong protests were sparked by a proposed extradition law that would have allowed some offenses committed in Hong Kong to be tried by mainland Chinese courts. Pro-democracy advocates said the law was an usurpation of Hong Kong freedoms and autonomy guaranteed under the Basic Law.
Although the extradition bill was later withdrawn, the protesters expanded their demands, calling for universal suffrage for Hong Kong and for other freedoms they say were promised by Beijing when it regained control over the territory.
Western governments, including the U.S. under both the Trump and Biden administrations, have condemned the arrest of the democracy leaders.
In its 2021 Hong Kong Policy Act Report, released on Wednesday, the U.S. State Department said China had used the new national security law ” to stifle pro-democracy voices and crack down on political activity.”
“Since June 2020, elements of the [Hong Kong police] and the Hong Kong Department of Justice worked with, and under the supervision of, mainland Chinese officials to carry out politically motivated reprisals against opposition politicians and activists.”
In a statement on Wednesday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that China had “severely undermined the rights and freedoms of people in Hong Kong,” through arbitrary arrests and politically motivated prosecutions as well as “pressure on judicial independence and academic and press freedoms.”