A Hong Kong court has found seven veteran pro-democracy activists guilty of “illegal assembly” for their involvement in a mass rally conducted in 2019 that saw the participation of 1.7 million Hong Kong residents. The court accused the leaders of organizing and taking part in the march, which had been given police authorization. The march was held to oppose a law that would have allowed Hongkongers accused of criminal charges to be extradited to the mainland.
Among the seven leaders is 83-year-old Martin Lee, who had launched Hong Kong’s Democratic Party in the 1990s. Often hailed as Hong Kong’s ‘father of democracy,’ his arrest had raised a huge storm in Hong Kong. The remaining six people include 72-year-old media tycoon Jimmy Lai, and former lawmakers Lee Cheuk-yan, Margaret Ng, Albert Ho, Leung Kwok-hung, and Cyd Ho.
District Court Judge Amanda Woodcock, who handed down the judgment, stated that the prosecution had succeeded in proving “beyond reasonable doubt” that defendants had organized the unauthorized assembly. All seven have denied the charges. The sentencing is due on April 16 and some legal experts predict a jail term ranging from 12 to 18 months or even five years.
“If I get sentenced to jail, this would be a matter of great pride, and the crowning glory of my life’s work… Because I will be going to jail for standing by the people of Hong Kong… I would like to thank and pay my respects to all of the beautiful people of Hong Kong who marched alongside us, who marched peacefully to exercise our rights… We promise that we will carry on marching with you for our rights,” Lee Cheuk-yan told reporters.
Cyd Ho, from the Labour Party, said that the court verdict is a signal of the loss of freedom of expression in the city. He warned that the political framework of Hong Kong has collapsed, thus risking the governance system becoming a “hotbed for corruption.”
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All the defendants are aged 60 years or above. In addition to them, 47 more high-profile activists are currently facing charges of subversion under the National Security Law, imposed on Hong Kong in June 2020. Most of these people have been denied bail, leaving them languishing in jails.
According to Chung Kim-wah, deputy chief executive of the Public Opinion Research Institute (PORI), the way Hong Kong courts handle public order cases has changed massively since Beijing began tightening its grasp on the city. Earlier, the courts rarely convicted people on such charges if the assembly had been merely for raising political demands. But now, it has begun accepting the Chinese Communist Party’s view that these types of protests should be severely punished. This, Chung says, is a crucial change from the common law that Hongkongers enjoyed in the past.
The judgment comes as U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken reaffirmed in a notice sent to Congress a determination made by former President Donald Trump according to which Hong Kong does not deserve any special treatment from Washington under the Hong Kong Policy Act as it is no longer autonomous. Blinken accused Beijing of undermining the freedoms of Hongkongers through politically motivated prosecutions, arbitrary arrests, and suppression of press and academic freedoms.
“We will continue to call on the PRC to abide by its international obligations and commitments; to cease its dismantlement of Hong Kong’s democratic institutions, autonomy, and rule of law; to release immediately and drop all charges against individuals unjustly detained in Hong Kong; and to respect the human rights of all individuals in Hong Kong,” Blinken said in a statement.