China’s new election system in Hong Kong has wiped out years of struggle for more democratic freedoms.
A court in Hong Kong has found seven prominent pro-democracy politicians and campaigners guilty of organising and taking part in an unauthorised assembly over their role in a peaceful protest that was one of the biggest rallies in the Chinese-controlled city in 2019.
Those convicted on Thursday include media tycoon Jimmy Lai, as well as 82-year-old Martin Lee, who helped launch the city’s largest opposition Democratic Party in the 1990s and is often called the former British colony’s “father of democracy”.
The silver-haired Lee and the others sat impassively as district court judge Amanda Woodcock handed down her decision.
“I have found after trial the prosecution able to prove beyond reasonable doubt that all of the defendants together organised what amounted to an unauthorised assembly,” the district court judge noted in the full written judgement.
They were also found guilty of knowingly participating in an unauthorised assembly.
Although Hong Kong’s mini-constitution guarantees the right to peaceful assembly, Woodcock added, “restrictions are imposed, including those for preserving public safety and public order, and protecting the rights of others”.
Sentencing will come later, with some legal experts expecting jail terms of 12-18 months. The maximum possible sentence is five years.
The other defendants included prominent barrister Margaret Ng and veteran democrats Lee Cheuk-yan, Leung Kwok-hung, Albert Ho and Cyd Ho.
Two others, Au Nok-hin and Leung Yiu-chung had earlier pleaded guilty.
A small group of supporters displayed banners outside the West Kowloon court building, including one that read “Oppose Political Persecution”.
“We will continue the struggle,” said Lee, 64, just before entering court. “We believe in the people of Hong Kong, in our brothers and sisters in our struggle, and the victory is ours if the people of Hong Kong are persistent.”
The group of activists were convicted for their involvement in a protest held on August 18, 2019. Organisers of the protest say that 1.7 million people marched that day in protest of a proposed bill that would have allowed criminal suspects to be extradited to mainland China for trial.
During the trial, defence lawyers argued that freedom of assembly is a constitutional right in Hong Kong and noted that police had approved the peaceful demonstration in the city’s Victoria Park, which grew into an unauthorised march as numbers swelled into the hundreds of thousands.
The prosecution argued that the freedom of assembly is not absolute in Hong Kong.
Critics, including Western governments, have condemned the arrests of Lee and other democrats amid the ongoing crackdown. Some 47 other high-profile democratic campaigners are facing subversion charges under a sweeping national security law and have mostly been denied bail and are being held in detention.
Al Jazeera’s Sarah Clarke, reporting from Hong Kong, said the latest verdicts were a “blow” to the pro-democracy movement.
“Nearly every major voice of dissent, or figure of opposition, is either in exile, in jail or on trial,” she said. “Now, more than 2,400 people have been charged as part of this crackdown. One democracy activist said the movement will simply have to find other ways of showing opposition to China.”
The United States said on Wednesday that Hong Kong does not warrant preferential treatment under the Hong Kong Policy Act, a law that had allowed Washington to maintain a special relationship with the city.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a news release that China had “severely undermined the rights and freedoms of people in Hong Kong”, through arbitrary arrests and politically motivated prosecutions as well as “pressure on judicial independence and academic and press freedoms”.
The 2019 pro-democracy protests were spurred by Beijing’s tightening squeeze on wide-ranging freedoms promised to Hong Kong on its return to Chinese rule in 1997, and plunged the semi-autonomous city into its biggest crisis since the handover.
The movement eventually fizzled out amid mass arrests, the emergence of the coronavirus pandemic, as well as Beijing’s enactment of the national security law.
The legislation, imposed on June 30 last year, punishes anything Beijing deems as secession, subversion, terrorism or collusion with foreign forces with up to life in prison.
Lai, the media tycoon convicted on Thursday, is being held without bail on charges under the national security law.
Since the legislation’s promulgation, the government has sought to crush the opposition movement, barred protests and curbed political expression, and overhauled the city’s electoral system to ensure only pro-China “patriots” govern Hong Kong.
Hong Kong and Chinese authorities, however, say the security law and electoral reforms are needed to “restore stability” and to resolve “deep-seated” problems, and that human rights will be safeguarded.