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Hong Kong jails prominent democrats, activists for ‘illegal assembly’

Jimmy Lai Chee-ying, founder of Giordano International Limited and Next Media Limited (Voice of America/WikiCommons)
April 18, 2021

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

A court in Hong Kong on Friday handed down sentences to several prominent pro-democracy figures including media mogul Jimmy Lai, international barrister Margaret Ng, and Democratic Party founder Martin Lee, while prosecutors brought two additional charges under the national security law against Lai.

Lai, 72, and veteran trade unionist Lee Cheuk-yan, 64, were jailed for 12 months under the Public Order Ordinance (POO) after the court found them guilty of taking part in an “illegal assembly” on Aug. 18, 2019.

Veteran rights campaigner and former opposition lawmaker Leung Kwok-hung, 65, was sentenced to 18 months, with former lawmaker and rights activist Au Nok-hin getting 10 months and former Labour Party lawmaker Cyd Ho eight months.

The court handed down suspended, 12-month jail terms to barrister and former opposition lawmaker Margaret Ng, 73, and Martin Lee, 82, the founding chairman of Hong Kong’s Democratic Party, who has been called the “father of Hong Kong’s democracy.”

Rights lawyer Albert Ho, 69, was also handed a 12-month suspended sentence, while labor rights activist and former lawmaker Leung Yiu-chung, 67, was handed an eight-month suspended sentence.

When asked if she had anything to say, Margaret Ng, who was defending herself, said confidence in the courts had been eroded by the use of the POO to sentence peaceful activists who were exercising their right to peaceful assembly and protest under promises made in the city’s Basic Law and bill of rights.

“The law should give protection to rights, not take them away,” Ng told the court, adding that she had criticized the POO when serving in the Legislative Council (LegCo) two decades ago. “The people relied on the law to protect them, and the courts are the ultimate arbiter of the law.”

“When the court applies a law which takes away fundamental rights, the confidence in the courts and judicial independence is shaken, even though the fault lies in the law, not with the judge who applies it, and that would strike at the foundation of our rule of law,” Ng said.

Charged for illegal assembly

In a separate case, also at the West Kowloon Magistrates’ Court, Jimmy Lai and Lee Cheuk-yan were handed an extra two months’ jail time each in connection with a prayer rally on Aug. 31, also for “illegal assembly.”

Former Democratic Party chair Yeung Sum, 73, was sentenced to eight months over the same charge, suspended for 12 months, said Judge Amanda Woodcock, who presided over both cases.

The three men had pleaded guilty to the charges, and received shorter sentences owing to their age, state of health, and guilty plea, Woodcock said.

China Labour Bulletin (CLB) executive director Han Dongfang, also a broadcaster for RFA, said Lee Cheuk-yan had done what a trade unionist anywhere in the world would do.

“As a trade union leader and a champion of democracy, Lee Cheuk-yan’s extensive leadership in fighting for workers’ economic and political rights has inspired many young people in Hong Kong,” Han said in a statement on the CLB website.

“His sentence will certainly not weaken his fighting spirit. It will, on the contrary, encourage the younger generation to join the fight for a better life and justice in the city,” he said.

A comprehensive assault

Former colonial-era Hong Kong governor Chris Patten, now Lord Patten of Barnes, said the sentences were part of a “comprehensive assault” by the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) on Hong Kong’s freedoms and rule of law.

“This week, we have witnessed some of the most distinguished of the city’s peaceful and moderate champions of liberty and democracy placed in Beijing’s vengeful sights,” Patten said in comments carried on the website of the U.K.-based rights group Hong Kong Watch.

“The CCP simply does not understand that you cannot bludgeon and incarcerate people into loving a totalitarian and corrupt regime,” Patten said, adding that the CCP was happy to carry on using the city “as a secret means for the family and friends of Beijing’s leaders to store away the proceeds of their corruption.”

Patten also signed a letter to prime minister Boris Johnson calling for Magnitsky-style sanctions on officials linked to the suppression of Hong Kong’s freedoms, as well as the ongoing rights abuses against Uyghurs and other ethnic groups in Xinjiang.

“It is clear that the ‘golden era’ of relations with China is now over,” Patten wrote.

Stephen Kinnock, shadow minister for Asia and the Pacific, said it was “a dark day for democracy, free speech and liberty in Hong Kong,” while U.S. Senator Mitt Romney called for the immediate release of Lai, Lee, and the other activists.

‘Hong Kong loses its soul’

Canadian MP Jenny Kwan said Hong Kong had “lost its soul” with Friday’s sentencings.

“The sentencing of these freedom fighters marks a dark day where the Pearl of the Orient has lost its soul,” she said, calling on the Canadian authorities to offer asylum to Hongkongers fleeing persecution.

Meanwhile, Hong Kong prosecutors have added two more charges to Jimmy Lai’s charge sheet, accusing him of “urging foreign countries or organizations to impose sanctions on Hong Kong.”

The crime was said to have been committed between July 1, 2020, and Feb. 15, 2021, with his assistant Mark Simon, Chan Tsz-wah, Andy Li and Finn Lau among his co-conspirators, Lai’s Apple Daily newspaper reported.

Outside West Kowloon Magistrates’ Court, supporters chanted “Shame on political prosecutions!” and “Peaceful protest is not a crime!”

“We have the right to demonstrate!” and calls for the five demands of the 2019 protest movement were also heard.

Before going into court, Lee Cheuk-yan said it would be an honor to walk with the people of Hong Kong, quoting the song “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”

“The people of Hong Kong will never be alone, because we are walking together through the storm, even in darkness,” he said. “We are proud to be able to walk with the people of Hong Kong on the road to democracy.”