A group of high-profile Hong Kong pro-democracy activists including media mogul Jimmy Lai, will be sentenced on Friday for organising or attending “unauthorised assemblies” during mass protests that rocked the city in 2019.
At least some are expected to receive jail terms of up to five years, another blow to Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement, as authorities work to crush all forms of dissent.
Along with Lai, the group includes veteran activists Lee Cheuk Yan and “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung, 82-year-old barrister Martin Lee, widely known as the father of Hong Kong democracy, and 73-year-old barrister and former legislator Margaret Ng.
The sentences relate to convictions in two cases – one relating to a protest on 18 August 2019 and another two weeks later on 31 August.
Lai and Lee Cheuk Yan were defendants in both cases. Lai, who is facing other charges including under the national security law imposed by Beijing last year, has been detained on remand since late last year, but Friday will mark the first time he had been sentenced.
His repeated arrests and related raid of his newsrooms have drawn international condemnation. Lee is also facing a number of other protest-related cases this year, and had previously told the Guardian he expected to be jailed.
Dozens queued to enter the West Kowloon court on Friday morning, including foreign diplomats and former Hong Kong legislators. Former democratic member, Emily Lau, told the Hong Kong Free Press she was concerned about her former colleagues.
“We hope they will get a fair and just treatment from the Hong Kong judiciary,” she said. “Some of us still have a bit of confidence in the judiciary, but we will wait and see.”
Outside the court the defendants held up their hands to signal “five demands, not one less”, the rallying cry of the movement. Lee Cheuk Yan urged Hong Kong people to “hold on”.
“I’m ready to face the penalty and sentencing and I’m proud that I can walk with the people of Hong Kong for this democracy,” Lee said. “We will walk together even in darkness.”
The offences carried a maximum of five years in jail. Critics had argued the imposition of jail terms over the unauthorised protest offences would be disproportionate.
During mitigation, Margaret Ng told the court laws should “give protection to rights, not take them away, especially in Hong Kong where structural democracy is absent”.
“We are mindful that when the court applies a law which takes away fundamental rights, the confidence in the courts and judicial independence is shaken, even when the fault lies in the law, not with the judge who applies it, and that would strike at the foundation of our rule of law.”
Ng said there was “no right so precious to the people of Hong Kong as the freedom of expression and the freedom of peaceful assembly”.
Prosecutors accused the individuals of organising or participating in unauthorised assemblies on two dates in August 2019, at the height of the mass pro-democracy protests which brought the city to a standstill.
On 2 April, district judge Amanda Woodcock convicted seven defendants and accepted two guilty pleas over the 18 August rally.
An estimated 1.7 million people marched at the 18 August rally, which was comparatively peaceful, but against police orders. Its organisers, the Civil Human Rights Front, had been given permission to hold a rally in Victoria Park but not a march, which began when crowds spilled on to the streets, taking over major roads to walk to government offices a few kilometres away.
Woodcock found against the defence that the march was “a dispersal plan born out of necessity” and was instead an unauthorised public procession.
The 31 August rally – to which Lee Cheuk Yan, Lai and former Democratic party chairman Yeung Sum pleaded guilty on 7 April – had originally been called off by the organisers after police arrested pro-democracy lawmakers and activists, but crowds protested regardless.
Entering his plea, Lee told the court the group had done nothing wrong, and “history would absolve us”.
Starting as a peaceful march earlier in the day, the demonstration descended into violence and chaos, and protesters and police clashed in various locations around the city. Police used water cannon, teargas, pepper spray and “warning shots” of live rounds in response to protesters surrounding government and police headquarters, burning barricades of road barriers and other debris, the Guardian reported at the time. Elsewhere, riot police stormed the Prince Edward metro station and used batons to beat passengers.
More than 10,200 people have been arrested in relation to the mass protests of 2019, which began in demonstration against a proposed bill allowing extradition to China but evolved into a broader pro-democracy movement that saw violent confrontations with increasingly brutal police response teams. Fewer than 3,000 of those arrests have progressed into the court system.
A subsequent crackdown by authorities, using existing criminal laws, a draconian national security law introduced by Beijing in 2020, and anti-pandemic laws, has ended mass protests, and more than 100 people have been arrested under suspicion of national security offences, including much of the opposition camp. This week the government gazetted amendment bills to overhaul the election system, introducing police vetting for candidates, outlawing calls to boycott the vote, and limiting the number of seats opposition candidates could feasibly hold.