A Hong Kong court found seven prominent Democrats guilty of unauthorized gathering allegations, including 82-year-old attorney Martin Lee and media magnate Jimmy Lai, 72, the latest blow to the city’s beleaguered democracy movement.
Lee, who helped found the city’s largest opposition Democratic Party in the 1990s and is often referred to as the “father of democracy” of the former British colony, was accused of attending an unauthorized gathering on August 18, 2019.
Silver-haired Lee and the others, all over 60, sat listless as District Court judge Amanda Woodcock announced her decision.
“I found after the trial that the public prosecutor’s office can prove beyond any doubt that all the defendants together organized an unauthorized meeting,” said the district court judge in a full written judgment.
You were also found guilty of knowingly attending an unauthorized meeting.
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Although the mini-constitution of Hong Kong guarantees the right to peaceful assembly, Woodcock added, “Restrictions are imposed, including those to maintain public safety and order and to protect the rights of others.”
The conviction comes on April 16, with some legal experts expecting prison terms of 12 to 18 months. The maximum possible prison sentence is 5 years.
Other defendants included prominent lawyer Margaret Ng, 73; and veteran Democrat Lee Cheuk-yan, 64; Albert Ho, 69; Leung Kwok-hung, 65; and Cyd Ho, 66. Two others, Au Nok-hin and Leung Yiu-chung, 67, had previously pleaded guilty.
A small group of supporters displayed banners outside the West Kowloon courthouse, including one that read “Oppose Political Persecution”.
“Peaceful gathering is not a crime,” shouted Leung Kwok-hung as he entered the courtyard.
The judge denied a prosecutor’s request to keep the nine in custody and granted them bail pending conviction.
During the trial, defense lawyers argued that freedom of assembly was a constitutional right in Hong Kong, noting that police had approved the peaceful demonstration in downtown Victoria Park, which turned into an unauthorized march when the number rose to hundreds of thousands.
Prosecutors argued that freedom of assembly in Hong Kong is not absolute.
Critics, including Western governments, have condemned the ongoing crackdown on Lee and other Democrats’ arrests. 47 other high profile democratic activists are charged with subversion under national security law. Most of them have been denied bail and are being held.
The US said Wednesday that Hong Kong does not warrant preferential treatment under the Hong Kong Policy Act, a law that allowed Washington to maintain a special relationship with the territory.
Foreign Minister Antony Blinken said in a press release that China had “severely undermined the rights and freedoms of the Hong Kong people through arbitrary arrests and politically motivated prosecutions, as well as” pressures on judicial independence and academic and press freedom.
The protests for democracy in 2019 were fueled by Beijing’s heightened pressure on the far-reaching freedoms promised to Hong Kong after its return to Chinese rule in 1997, plunging the semi-autonomous city into its biggest crisis since the surrender.
Beijing has since passed a comprehensive national security law that punishes anything it sees as secession, subversion, terrorism, or collusion with foreign forces with up to life imprisonment.
Since the law was promulgated, the government has tried to crush the opposition movement, ban protests and curb political expression, and overhaul the city’s electoral system to ensure that only pro-Chinese “patriots” rule Hong Kong.
However, the Hong Kong and China authorities say the security law and electoral reforms are needed to restore stability and resolve “deep-seated” problems, and that human rights are respected.