Hong Kong, China:
Nine veteran Hong Kong activists face jail after being sentenced Thursday for their role in organizing one of the biggest democracy protests to engulf the city in 2019.
The defendants included some of Hong Kong’s most prominent pro-democracy activists, many of whom are non-violence advocates who have spent decades campaigning unsuccessfully for universal suffrage.
They are the latest group of democracy figures to be prosecuted as China oversees a sweeping crackdown on dissent after seven straight months of democracy protests in the financial hub.
Among them are Martin Lee, an 82-year-old lawyer who was chosen by Beijing to help draft Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, and Margaret Ng, a 73-year-old lawyer and former opposition MP.
Media mogul Jimmy Lai, currently in detention after his arrest under Beijing’s new national security law, was among those sentenced.
Leung Kwok-hung, an opposition politician known by his moniker “Long Hair” who was also detained on national security grounds, was also fired.
Others are prominent members of the Civil Front for Human Rights (CHRF), the coalition that has staged a series of huge rallies throughout 2019.
Some struck a provocative tone in court Thursday morning before the verdict, waving banners that read “protest against political repression”.
“We are very proud even if we have to go to jail for this,” Lee Cheuk-yan, former lawmaker and union leader, told reporters. “We will continue to walk no matter what happens in the future.”
Seven were convicted of knowingly organizing and participating in an unauthorized rally. Two others had previously pleaded guilty.
They face up to five years in prison.
The group was prosecuted for holding an unauthorized assembly on August 18, 2019 – one of the largest in Hong Kong that year as people took to the streets to demand democracy and greater police accountability. .
Organizers claimed 1.7 million people turned out – nearly one in four Hong Kong residents – although that number has been difficult to independently verify.
It was easily one of the biggest gatherings that year, with dense crowds parading peacefully for hours under a sea of umbrellas and stormy skies.
Protests in Hong Kong can only take place with permission from the authorities, and rights groups have long criticized the use of unauthorized rally prosecutions.
British lawyer David Perry, hired by the Hong Kong government as lead prosecutor, has resigned following harsh criticism from the UK government and UK legal bodies over his decision to take the post.
Prosecutors accused the group of defying police instructions that day and encouraging crowds to cross the main island of Hong Kong, causing traffic disruptions.
In her verdict, District Judge AJ Woodcock said she was prone to a maximum jail term and said that the march was peaceful was not a defense.
“It cannot be fair for an offender to argue that although his act was not authorized … but because it was ultimately peaceful and there was no violence, he should not be arrested, prosecuted or sentenced, ”she wrote.
The group will be sentenced on April 16 and those who have not yet been detained on separate charges have been released on bail on condition that they return their passports and remain in Hong Kong.
Since 2019, protests have been virtually banned, with authorities denying permission for security reasons or due to the pandemic.
The rallies often turned into clashes between riot police and a group of die-hard participants, and posed the most concerted challenge to Chinese rule since the transfer of the former British colony in 1997.
The move ultimately failed under the combined weight of exhaustion, some 10,000 arrests and the emergence of the coronavirus pandemic.
Authorities have since unleashed a broad crackdown, and Beijing has imposed a new security law that criminalizes much of dissent.
Earlier this week, Chinese leaders also passed a new law governing the already limited local elections in Hong Kong.
The number of directly elected seats for the 90-seat legislature has been reduced to less than a quarter while anyone wishing to run for public office will need to be approved by the national security police and civil servants for their “patriotism” .
The leaders of China and Hong Kong believe these measures are necessary to restore the stability of the financial center.
Critics counter that Beijing destroyed the freedoms and autonomy it had promised Hong Kong to retain after the transfer.
(This story was not edited by UK Time News on Social Platforms.)