Hong Kong’s “Father of Democracy” Martin Lee was handed a jail sentence of 11 months, suspended for 24 months on Friday for organising and participating in an unauthorised assembly in 2019, whilst pro-democracy media tycoon Jimmy Lai received 12 months behind bars.
Lee, the founder of the Democratic Party, was among nine democrats convicted of organising and participating in a unauthorised protest on August 18, 2019, where thousands of demonstrators gathered in Victoria Park in Causeway Bay and marched peacefully to Chater Road in Central.
The 82-year-old appeared in the West Kowloon Magistrates’ Courts alongside Vice-chair of the Labour Party and ex-lawmaker Lee Cheuk-yan, who received 12 months behind bars.
Other ex-lawmakers who were jailed immediately include Leung Kwok-hung, who faces 18 months in prison, Cyd Ho who received eight months and Au Nok-hin, who was handed 10 month behind bars.
Ex-lawmaker and barrister Margaret Ng was sentenced to 12 months in prison, suspended for 24 months whilst ex-lawmaker Leung Yiu-chung received eight months imprisonment, suspended for 12 months. Another ex-lawmaker, Albert Ho, was handed 12 months behind bars, suspended for 24 months.
All but Au and Leung Yiu-chung pleaded not guilty to the offences. Leung only admitted to taking part in the unauthorised assembly at the beginning of the trial and the prosecution did not proceed with the organising charge.
District Court Judge Amanda Woodcock heard mitigations from seven democrats on Wednesday morning. Some defence lawyers urged the court to consider alternatives to a jail sentence, saying the public procession in question was peaceful and orderly. Others asked Woodcock to consider imposing a suspended sentence.
In delivering her sentencing, Woodcock said the group had a “pre-meditated plan” to bypass police objections to the public procession.
She said while the defenced called for a non-custodial sentence, she did not agree with the arguments that deterrent sentences should not be imposed when there is a absence of violence. She said she had to “take into account the overall circumstances,” namely the social unrest in 2019 which saw “relentless” and “violent” incidents, when meting out the sentences.
Woodcock said the Basic Law guarantees freedom of assembly but such a right was “not absolute.” She said that during the “volatile months,” there was an “inherent risk” to public order when a large number of demonstrators congregated.
“[The case] involved a direct challenge to the police… all defendants were well-known [figures], which would guarantee to draw crowds and followers. They made a conscious decision to break the law during a volatile time,” judge Woodcock said.
As Lee Cheuk-yan and other defendants jailed were taken into custody, members of the public in the courtroom chanted: “Hang in there until the last moment!”
Lee responded by holding up a hand gesture that referred to the 2019 protest slogan “Five demands, not one less.”
Earlier on Friday, defendant Margaret Ng, who is a barrister, discharged her lawyer and addressed the court with a eight-page personal statement. The 73-year-old said she had to “stand up for” the people of Hong Kong whom she described as peace-loving and well-disciplined.
Dozens of supporters waited outside the courtroom and gave a loud round of applause when she walked out. Some were emotional and hugged Ng tightly and sobbed.
The crowd yelled “Shameful political prosecution!” as leading counsel for the Department of Justice tried to leave the courtroom.
‘A violation of international law’
Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific Regional Director Yamini Mishra said the authorities were seeking to eliminate all political opposition: “Having arrested the majority of Hong Kong’s most prominent dissidents using the repressive national security law, the authorities are now mopping up remaining peaceful critics under the pretext of bogus charges related to the 2019 protests,” Mishra said.
“These convictions are a violation of international law, which states that participating in and organizing peaceful assemblies does not require prior permission by the state. Nor does failure to notify the authorities about an assembly make it unlawful to take part in it. The prosecution’s case against these activists is simply not tenable.”
Correction 7:16pm: An early version of this headline incorrectly suggested Lee was handed a two year suspended jail term, as opposed to an 11 month jail term, suspended for two years.