Dozens of people gathered in Hong Kong on Friday morning to get a seat in court before sentencing media mogul Jimmy Lai and nine other pro-democracy politicians and activists after they were found guilty join illegal gatherings during major anti-government rallies in 2019.
It marks the first time that Lai, one of the most prominent democracy advocates in Hong Kong, who has been in prison since December after being denied bail in a separate national security case, will sentenced.
About 100 people lined up outside the court early on Friday to get a seat for the hearing.
“Struggling for democracy and freedom in the past has been very difficult. With national security laws, that’s even harder, ”19-year-old student Yan told Reuters news agency, referring to the sweeping law imposed by China last year.
“We need to believe in our faith and wait for the next time,” the student refused to give his full name because of the sensitivity of this topic.
Lai was found guilty in two separate trials in April on charges of illegal gathering on August 18 and August 31, 2019, respectively. The maximum penalty is likely to be five years in prison.
Repeated arrests of Lai and other pro-democracy politicians and activists have drawn criticism from Western governments and international human rights groups, who have sparked Concerns about the decline of freedoms in the territories, whose citizens were guaranteed unknown civil rights and freedoms on the mainland when they returned to Chinese rule in 1997.
In the August 18 case, District Court magistrate Amanda Woodcock concluded Lai committing crimes with 82-year-old Martin Lee, who helped form the city’s largest opposition Democratic Party in the 1990s and co. Small author constitution of the territory. He is often referred to as the “father of democracy” of the former British colony.
When entering court on Friday, Lee said: “I feel completely at ease, I am ready to face my verdict.”
Other defendants, also found guilty, include prominent lawyer Margaret Ng, 73, and veteran democrats Lee Cheuk-yan, Albert Ho, Leung Kwok-hung, Cyd Ho, Au Nok-hin and Leung Yiu-chung. The two later pleaded guilty.
Police approved a demonstration in Victoria Park that day, but refused to allow the group to march. During the event, hundreds of thousands of people poured into the park and onto the street.
In the second trial, the same judge concluded Lai and Lee Cheuk-yan commit crimes together with Yeung Sum. During those protests, police fired tear gas and tornado at protesters, some of whom threw petrol bombs.
All three defendants previously pleaded guilty.
Lee Cheuk-yan posted on Facebook late on Thursday that he is expected to go to jail but his mind is “as free as the ocean and the sky”.
The pro-democracy rallies in 2019 were triggered by the government’s plan for an extradition bill with the mainland and fueled by Beijing’s tightening of Hong Kong, creating a massive crisis. most of the territory since the handover.
Since then, Beijing has strengthened its restraint with national security laws, which punish anything it deems separatist, overthrowing, terrorist or collusion with foreign forces. with a life sentence.
Proponents of the law say it has brought stability to the territory. Critics say it criminalized dissent.
“These prosecutions come at a time when China is looking to restore order in Hong Kong through national security and national security laws that are being applied to everyone at all levels,” said Adrian Brown. of Al Jazeera, who was outside the court.
On Wednesday, the territory’s government held it National defense security education festival for the first time with events for school children – including reenacting police activity on the subway, posing for pictures in front of a tornado truck and handling weapons – and the police showed suspicions Sassy Ceremony.
Lai, the founder of the tabloid Apple Daily, is a frequent visitor to Washington, meeting with officials including former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to advocate for Hong Kong democracy. Beijing has labeled him a “traitor”.
Lai is expected to have two more trials on Friday, in a national security trial, where he is accused of collusion with foreign countries and a case related to the Apple Daily rental. Dozens of police stormed the newsroom headquarters last August after Lai was arrested.
Earlier this week, the tabloid published a handwritten letter that Lai sent to colleagues from prison, with the content: “We are journalists with a responsibility to seek justice. As long as we are not blinded by unreasonable temptations, as long as we don’t let evil enter us, we are fulfilling our responsibilities ”.
“The time has come,” he wrote.