A Hong Kong court has convicted some of the city’s most senior pro-democracy figures, including media mogul Jimmy Lai, of unauthorised assembly during protests in 2019, in the latest indication of the government’s efforts to crush dissident voices in the territory.
The group of seven convicted pro-democracy activists also included Martin Lee, 82, a UK-trained barrister known as Hong Kong’s “father of democracy”. Lee co-authored the Basic Law, the legal framework that has underpinned the territory’s governance since its handover from British to Chinese rule in 1997.
Lai, 73, is the founder of Apple Daily, the city’s biggest pro-democracy newspaper, which has been sharply critical of local and Chinese authorities for years. He has been in custody since last year on separate charges and has been repeatedly denied bail.
All seven pleaded not guilty to the charges.
“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 on 18 August 2019,” said Amanda Jane Woodcock, the district judge.
The group was accused of organising and participating in a demonstration in which an estimated 1.7m people marched, part of the wave of anti-government protests that engulfed the city in 2019. The leaderless movement represented the biggest challenge to communist party rule on Chinese soil in decades.
Critics said the decision to prosecute the elderly activists was part of a wider crackdown against anyone perceived as disloyal to Beijing in the wake of the protests.
China has tightened its grip on the territory, imposing a national security law last year that gave authorities sweeping powers to target individuals deemed to be engaged in the poorly defined crimes of secession, subversion, terrorism or collusion with foreign forces.
Beijing has also intensified its efforts to remould Hong Kong’s political and cultural landscape. The National People’s Congress, China’s rubber-stamp parliament, last month approved changes to the city’s electoral system designed to snuff out the opposition.
“It is our badge of honour to be put in jail for walking together with the people of Hong Kong,” said Lee Cheuk-yan, 64, a pro-democracy lawmaker and activist who was one of those convicted.
Most of the defendants were granted bail, apart from Jimmy Lai and Leung Kwok-hung, an activist known as Long Hair. Both will remain in custody. A sentencing hearing will be held on April 16.
As well as the seven convicted on Thursday, two other defendants in the same case pleaded guilty at the start of the trial.
The hearings had a funereal air, with a loose collection of activists and pro-democracy lawmakers in regular attendance.
Ada, a 40-year-old sales assistant, said on Thursday: “Today is April Fool’s Day . . . I knew that Hong Kong is now an absurd place, but I just wanted to witness it.”
Separately, the case of Andy Li, an activist who was part of a group captured by China’s coast guard last August while attempting to escape the city by speed boat, has raised questions about the integrity of Hong Kong’s respected legal system.
The group of 12 was intercepted while trying to flee to Taiwan and detained in Shenzhen, the Chinese city across the border from Hong Kong. Police have returned 10 of them to the territory, but Li’s family has been unable to ascertain his whereabouts.
The family said a lawyer who represented Li at a hearing was not appointed by them, in a highly unusual legal procedure.