Ten of Hong Kong’s most senior pro-democracy activists including the media mogul Jimmy Lai have been sentenced to jail terms of up to 18 months for organising or attending “unauthorised assemblies” during mass protests that rocked the city in 2019.
In the latest blow to Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement, the individuals were either ordered to jail or given suspended sentences in relation to two separate rallies held on 18 and 31 August 2019.
Lai and the veteran activist Lee Cheuk-yan were each sentenced to a total of 14 months in jail for their roles in the two rallies. For their roles on 18 August, the activist “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung, received the longest sentence, of 18 months, while Martin Lee, an 82-year-old barrister widely known as the father of Hong Kong democracy, and Margaret Ng, a 73-year-old barrister and former legislator, were given 11 and 12 months respectively, both sentences suspended for two years.
The former Democratic party chairman Yeung Sum – who pleaded guilty alongside Lai and Cheuk-yan for the 31 August rally – was given a suspended sentence of eight months.
Outside the court, the lawyer Albert Ho, who was given a 12-month sentence suspended for two years, said the result was “shocking and totally unthinkable”. He said the judge treated any act of assembly without police approval as “disruption to the social order”. Ordinarily their conviction would only attract a fine, Ho said, but instead the judge set their sentences at 18 months before reductions.
Asked how he felt about the verdict, Lee said only that he was going home for a rest.
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.
Separately, prosecutors laid a further national security charge against Lai on Friday, accusing him of conspiracy to collude with foreign forces, and another criminal charge of conspiracy to pervert the course of justice. Both reportedly relate to the case of Andy Li, an activist who was caught by Chinese authorities attempting to flee Hong Kong for Taiwan by boat.
Lai’s 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 of people queued to enter the West Kowloon court on Friday morning, including foreign diplomats and former Hong Kong legislators. The 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. 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 that the imposition of jail terms over the unauthorised protest offences would be disproportionate.
During mitigation, Ng told the court that laws should “give protection to rights, not take them away, especially in Hong Kong where structural democracy is absent”.
She said: “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 had 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 that brought the city to a standstill.
On 2 April, the 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 Cheuk-yan, Lai and Yeung 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.
The jail terms were quickly condemned. Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific regional director, Yamini Mishra, said the convictions were against international law. “The wrongful prosecution, conviction and sentencing of these activists underlines the Hong Kong government’s intention to eliminate all political opposition in the city,” Mishra said.
Chris Patten, the former British governor of Hong Kong, said the cases saw “some of the most distinguished of the city’s peaceful and moderate champions of liberty and democracy placed in Beijing’s vengeful sights”.
“The CCP simply does not understand that you cannot bludgeon and incarcerate people into loving a totalitarian and corrupt regime,” he said.
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 with violent confrontations met by 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 have 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.