HONG KONG (AP) Seven of Hong Kong’s top pro-democracy lawyers, including a media mogul and an 82-year-old veteran of the movement, were convicted Thursday of organizing and participating in a march during the massive anti-government protests in 2019 which dealt a blow to dissent.
The decision was the final blow to the marked democracy movement as governments in Hong Kong and Beijing tighten the screws in their efforts to exercise greater control over China’s semi-autonomous territory. Hong Kong had enjoyed a vibrant political culture and freedom not seen elsewhere in China during the decades it was a British colony. Beijing had vowed to allow the city to retain those freedoms for 50 years when it took over the territory back in 1997, but recently it has launched a series of measures many fear are a step closer to making Hong Kong unchanged from cities on the mainland.
Jimmy Lai, owner of the open tabloid Apple Daily; Martin Lee, the octogenic founder of the Democratic Party of Cities; and five former pro-democracy lawmakers were found guilty in a verdict handed down by a district judge. They face up to five years in prison. Two other former lawmakers charged in the same case had pleaded guilty earlier.
Under the ruling, six of the seven defendants convicted Thursday, including Lee and Lai, wore a banner criticizing police and calling for reform as they left Victoria Park on August 18, 2019 and ran a procession through downtown E the other defendant, Margaret Yee, joined them along the way and assisted in carrying the banner.
Police had given permission for a rally in Victoria Park but had rejected a request from the organizer, the Civil Front for Human Rights, for the march.
Organizers estimated that 1.7 million people marched that day in opposition to a bill that would allow suspects to be extradited to mainland China for trial a move that infuriated Hong Konggers who value their special justice system and sparked demonstrations with months that sometimes led to violent clashes between protesters and police.
Legislation was eventually withdrawn, but security was ignited, and protesters sought to expand to include calls for full democracy. Instead, Beijing has responded by cracking down on dissent, including a new national security law, and changes last month that will significantly reduce the number of directly elected seats in the Hong Kong legislature. As a result of the crackdown, most Hong Kong outspoken activists are now in prison or in self-exile abroad.
Their conviction is another example of Beijing destroying Hong Kong freedoms and failing to meet its international obligations, said White House spokesman Jen Psaki. UN chief spokesman Stephane Dujarric said UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has repeatedly said there should be no prisoners of conscience in the 21st century, and he always underlines the right to a peaceful assembly. “
Former lawmaker Lee Cheuk-yan, who was among those convicted Thursday, expressed disappointment at the ruling, saying he and his fellow citizens have the constitutional right to march. Lee is best known for helping organize annual candlelight vigils in Hong Kong on the anniversary of the bloody suppression of pro-democracy protests in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989.
We are determined that we have the right to assemble, he said. It’s our badge of honor to be in jail for walking alongside the people of Hong Kong.
Six of the nine defendants in the case have been released on bail provided they do not leave Hong Kong and they submit all their travel documents. They will return to court on April 16, where appeals will be heard before sentencing.
Lai is among those who remain incarcerated on other charges, including collaborating with foreign forces to interfere in city affairs, a new crime under the national security law imposed on the city in 2020 by the central government in Beijing.
The law has brought a concern about dissent, all public protests but breaking down, which had already been reduced due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Authorities have used sweeping legislation to arrest prominent pro-democracy lawyers. They have also arrested activists on other charges, such as participating in illegal rallies.
Lee, a former lawmaker, has been an advocate for human rights and democracy in the city since the former British colony returned to China in 1997, although he disagreed with the violent tactics adopted by some of the protesters in 2019.
Ahead of Thursday’s hearing, some of the defendants and their supporters gathered outside the courthouse, shouting Against political persecution and Five Demands, not one less, “in connection with pro-democracy demands that include amnesty for detainees in protests as well as universal suffrage in the territory.
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