HONG KONG – Jimmy Lai, a pro-democracy media figure, and several of Hong Kong’s most prominent fighters were sentenced on Friday to eight months to 18 months in prison for holding an unauthorized peaceful protest.
Supporters of the accused say the sentences are the latest sign of a fundamental transformation that Beijing is trying to impose on Hong Kong to quell dissent. Until recently, the city has long been a bastion of freedom of speech. The sentences now send an unequivocal message that activism poses serious risks to even the most internationally recognized opposition figures.
China’s ruling Communist Party has long viewed Mr Lee and Mr Lai as troublemakers. The sentences now allow Beijing to declare them criminals, reinforcing its challenge to foreign criticism and sanctions imposed by the United States following the crackdown on Hong Kong.
For Mr Lai, this may only be the beginning of his legal danger. He faces additional charges, including a comprehensive national security law that vaguely defines political crimes against Beijing and carries harsher sentences.
The sentences are the latest escalation of wider repression, which has effectively silenced the political opposition and crippled prospects.
“It’s excessive, it’s completely disproportionate. What did they do to deserve such severe punishments? Said Fernando Chung, a former MP. “It was a peaceful demonstration to the public to show people’s discontent. All political leaders have done is walk with the people.
After the sentences were read, supporters and family members waved at the defendants and called for their support. “Stay strong!” Several shouted.
Dozens of pro-democracy politicians have also faced charges of subversion under a strict national security law. China is overhauling Hong Kong’s electoral system to consolidate the power of the pro-Beijing establishment. Protests were largely banned during the pandemic, and self-censorship in the media and the arts, which are under strong official pressure, is a growing concern.
Over a period of months in 2019, hundreds of thousands of people joined anti-government demonstrations in one of the biggest challenges facing the Communist Party in decades. Sentences imposed on Friday, added to measures already taken against dissent, are likely to freeze participation in similar protests in the future.
“It is clear that the approach has changed radically, not just in the courts and the police,” said Sharon Fast, a professor of media law at the University of Hong Kong. “The emphasis is on deterrence; the emphasis is on punishment. And with large-scale joints, the risk is very high. “
The defendants were charged with marching on August 18, 2019, following a gathering in Victoria Park on Hong Kong Island. The rally in the park was cleared by police, but authorities, citing violence during earlier protests not approved the plans for the demonstrators to march about two miles to the government headquarters after.
Hundreds of thousands gathered in the summer rain. And as the defendants left the park after the rally, behind a banner condemning the use of force by police during the protests, the crowd followed. Although prosecutors acknowledged that there was no violence other than a demonstrator kicking cones, they cited the tense atmosphere of the period, anger at police and widespread traffic disruptions in support of the allegations.
Mr. Lee, who was the founder of the city’s first pro-democracy party and also helped draft the country’s mini-constitution, turned the cause of his life into defending civil and political rights in Hong Kong. He has traveled the world, including many trips to Washington, to lobby for the cause. Such an international accent is prohibited under national security law.
Mr. Lai, the media mogul, was smuggled into Hong Kong from mainland China as a child and rose from a factory worker to a clothing company tycoon. He then invested his wealth in tabloid-style crusades, which were sharply criticized by the authorities in Beijing and Hong Kong.
Mr Lai is also facing fraud and charges of collusion with a foreign state under security law, as he is said to be calling for sanctions against Hong Kong. In a separate hearing on Friday, prosecutors added two more charges of national security, accusing Mr Lai of conspiracy to carry out subversive activities and obstruct justice. The National Security Act, imposed by Beijing last year, gives authorities broad powers to crack down on various political crimes, including life imprisonment for “serious” crimes.
In the illegal assembly case, the court rejected the defense’s argument that the post-rally march was necessary to help protesters get out of the crowded park safely, or that the potential imprisonment for a nonviolent march would violate the rights to freedom of expression. meetings, traditionally protected in Hong Kong.
Judge Amanda Woodcock said on April 1, when the sentences were announced, that while Hong Kong recognizes the right to peaceful assembly, the law imposes limits to ensure the safety, order and rights of others. To refrain from prosecution just because the demonstration was peaceful, “will not give the law any teeth and will mock it,” she wrote in her decision.
Leung Kwok-hang, an activist, was sentenced to 18 months in prison, the most severe sentence. Labor leader Lee Chek-yang received a 12-month sentence and Sid Ho, an activist, 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.
The defendants were sentenced to up to five years in prison for organizing and participating in an unauthorized assembly. Activists denounced the sentences as illegal.
“These sentences constitute a violation of international law, which states that participation and the organization of peaceful assemblies do not require prior permission from the state,” said Yamini Mishra, Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific director. “All convicts today must be released immediately and their archives deleted.”
Mr. Lai, Lee Cheuk-yan and Yeung Sum, the former chairman of the Democratic Party of Hong Kong, pleaded guilty to another charge of illegal assembly related to a separate march on August 31, 2019. On that day, the protests turned into widespread violence.
In a letter to colleagues at the Apple Daily this week, Mr Lai told them to be careful because “freedom of speech is now a dangerous business”.
“The situation in Hong Kong is getting colder,” he wrote. “The era is falling apart before us, so it’s time to stand with our heads held high.”