April 1 (UPI) — A judge in Hong Kong on Thursday convicted seven pro-democracy protest leaders, including media tycoon Jimmy Lai, on charges of organizing and participating in an unlawful assembly during mass protests that rocked the former British colony in 2019.
Judge Amanda Woodcock in the district court of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region convicted Lai, 73, founder of the Apple Daily newspaper; Martin Lee, 82, known as Hong Kong’s “father of democracy”; Albert Ho, 69, former politician; and barrister Margaret Ng, 73, as well as three other politicians and activist leaders for their involvement in a protest on Aug. 18, 2019.
An estimated 1.7 million people took to the streets of Hong Kong on the day in question to protest the government, police brutality and a controversial extradition bill that would allow for some fugitives in the city to be sent to the mainland where they’d be tried by Chinese Communist Party courts.
Organized by the Civil Human Rights Front, a protest at Victoria Park was approved by police, but the charges against the democracy leaders stem from a procession that left the park carrying a banner toward Chater Road in Central, Hong Kong.
The prosecution accused the defendants of turning the peaceful and police-approved protest into an illegal march.
The defense argued that the leaders participated in order to safely disperse the some 300,000 people from the area — an argument the prosecution described as a “disingenuous excuse to flout the law,” according to the court document.
Woodcock, in her ruling, rejected the defense, saying if the defendants were assisting with the dispersal then “it does beggar belief they needed such a large banner.”
“I am sure this public procession was not about dispersal of crowds,” Woodcock wrote. “That was a description used to defy the law and circumvent the ban. … It was only a dispersal plan in name and the truth is it was a planned unauthorized assembly.”
The prosecution had said more than 30 people participated in the procession where the words “Stop the police and gangsters from plunging Hong kong into chaos” were printed on the banner.
Woodcock also rejected the defense’s argument that the defendants were not organizers of the event because they were not specifically named on the application for the assembly.
Former politicians “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung, 65; Cyd Ho, 66; and Lee Cheuk-yan, 64, made up the rest of the seven convicted on Thursday.
Two other charged former politicians — Au Nok-hin, 33, and Leung Yiu-chung, 67 — pleaded guilty before the trial.
Samuel Chu of the U.S. based-Hong Kong Democracy Council said the trial was not simply about one day in August of 2019 but an attempt to discredit the work, contributions and legacy of elder statesmen and women of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement.
“It is a deeper and more insidious form of political persecution — to not only silence them and to take away their freedom, but also to erase their political influence and legacy to recast them as criminals as the CCP rewrites the history of Hong Kong,” Chu said in a tweet. “This conviction was as much about the first million Hong Kongers [protest] march in May of 1989 as it was about the 1.7 million protest march in 2019.”
Minky Worden, director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch, called Thursday “another dark day for Hong Kong,” stating the court was “weaponized” to convict the seven protest leaders.
“World should question Beijing’s determination to warp justice for this result,” she said in a tweet.
Though the prosecution had sought to revoke bail for all seven defendants, Woodcock allowed five out on amended bail conditions that require them to hand over travel documents and to remain in Hong Kong, the Hong Kong Free Press reported.
Lai and Leung remain in police custody in connection to charges of violating the national security law.
Prosecutors accuse Lai, a critic of Beijing, of using his newspaper and social platforms to promote Western nations to sanction Hong Kong and Chinese authorities for its treatment of Hong Kong.
Leung is among 47 opposition politicians and activists charged with attempting to subvert the government by participating in unofficial primary elections in July of last year.
Sentencing is scheduled for April 16 when the defendants face up to five years in prison.
The verdict was announced a day after the United States issued a report stating Beijing’s degradation of Hong Kong’s autonomy no longer warranted it special trade status under U.S. law.
In the report, the State Department said at least 99 opposition politicians, activists and protesters have been arrested under the draconian national security law imposed on Hong Kong last summer to criminalize acts deemed threatening to the security of China with hefty sentences following the year of mass protests.
The United States, which has sanctioned 35 Hong Kong an Chinese officials over the new law, said as of September 2020 more than 10,000 people have been charged in connection with the anti-government protest.
Prominent activists Joshua Wong, Agnes Chow and Ivan lam were sentenced to between seven and 13 and a half months in December after pleading guilty in connection to charges stemming from a July 21, 2019, protest.
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