Seven of Hong Kong’s most senior and prominent pro-democracy figures, including lawyer and former legislator Martin Lee and media tycoon Jimmy Lai, have been found guilty over their involvement in an unauthorised protest rally.
After a four-week trial, the defendants were convicted on Thursday of organising and participating in the rally in 2019, joining two others who had pled guilty earlier. They could face up to 10 years in prison though their sentences are likely to be shorter than that.
The verdict was the latest blow to the flagging democracy movement as the governments in Hong Kong and Beijing tighten the screws in their efforts to exert greater control over the semi-autonomous Chinese territory.
The defendants included 82-year-old Lee, considered the father of democracy in Hong Kong, Lai – who is also facing a separate trail over alleged national security offences - former legislators Margaret Ng and Cyd Ho Sau-lan, lawyer Albert Ho Chun-yan, and veteran activists Lee Cheuk-yan and “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung. Former legislators Au-Nok-him and Leung Yiu-chung had pleaded guilty earlier.
The defendants were released on bail and sentencing will be decided at a later date. The maximum penalty for each offence is five years.
Before the ruling, a small group of supporters displayed banners outside the West Kowloon court building, including one that read “oppose political persecution”. Some chanted “five demands, not one less”, a rallying cry from the protest movement which includes demands for universal suffrage – a now impossible prospect following recent changes to the electoral system by Beijing – and amnesty for the thousands of arrested protesters.
Shortly before entering court Lee Cheuk-yan, 64, told media there was a “difficult situation in Hong Kong”, and labelled their prosecution as political retaliation. “We will continue the struggle,” he said.
The conviction relates to a rally on 18 August 2019, when an estimated 1.7 million people marched peacefully, 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. In contrast to many protests in 2019, it remained peaceful.
The defendants were arrested in April 2020 among a group of 15 people accused of organising the rally and two other protests. The arrests drew international rebuke, including a warning from the UN. Subsequent crackdowns on pro-democracy figures and changes to Hong Kong’s semi-democracy have brought further recriminations and sanctions from the international community.
The prosecution had argued the 18 August organisers “deliberately flouted the law” and were disingenuous in claiming they were not leading a march but instead enacting a “dispersal plan” because the police deliberately did not have one, according to Thursday’s judgement.
District judge Amanda Woodcock found the march “was not a dispersal plan born out of necessity but an unauthorised public procession”, citing among other evidence, public instructions prior to the event by Leung for attendees to “be water” – a tactic of spontaneous and flexible demonstration adopted by the protest movement.
“This sounds more like a rallying cry rather than an explanation behind a dispersal plan and overriding concern for safety,” said Woodcock.
She said she found police evidence believable, but that “in any event” their actions, inactions, mistakes or neglect of duties weren’t relevant to the question of whether the defendants organised an unauthorised rally.
Beijing has cracked down even harder on dissent since 2019, imposing a national security law last year, and earlier this week amending Hong Kong’s Basic Law, or constitution, to almost halve the proportion of directly elected representatives in the city’s legislature, which already had limited powers, and to require all candidates to be vetted for political loyalty.
Lee Cheuk-yan is facing three other trials this year on separate but similar charges, for organising unauthorised assemblies including a 2020 vigil for the Tiananmen Square massacre. “I think it’s inevitable I will go to jail,” he told the Guardian in February.