Activist priest Franco Mella led a rare sit-in action in solidarity with pro-democracy activists behind bars at Lai Chi Kok Reception Centre on Friday morning.

The silent protest marked one year since the arrest of 53 democrats for their organisation and participation in the primaries for the later postponed 2020 Legislative Council election. 47 of them were later charged under the national security law.

Rev. Franco Mella leads a silent sit-in action outside Lai Chi Kok Reception Centre. Photo: Peter Lee/HKFP.

The Italian Roman Catholic priest, who has a history of political activism in the city, told HKFP he felt it was “really a pity” that more than 30 of the 47 are still detained – more than 300 days since their first appearance in court.

“We cannot really understand why the prosecution put them in jail just… because they hadn’t prepared for the materials about this case,” the 73-year-old said, referring to the government lawyers’ requests in court for more time to prepare evidence.

Among the high-profile activists behind bars are Joshua Wong, ex-convener of Civil Human Rights Front Jimmy Sham and a number of veteran lawmakers who have had long stints in the Legislative Council.

(From left to right) Ng Kin-wai, Jimmy Sham, Lawrence Lau, Henry Wong, Kwok Ka-ki, Lee Yue-shun, Lam Cheuk-ting, Sam Cheung and Ray Chan getting on a Correctional Services Department vehicle on March 3, 2021. File Photo: Studio Incendo.

There is no presumption of bail for security law cases. Just 15 of the 47 democrats have been allowed bail; most recently, former spokesperson for disbanded group Demosisto, Wong Ji-yuet, was released ahead of Christmas.

As part of her bail conditions, she must abide by stipulations including refraining from sharing online commentary that may “endanger national security.”

“That’s very unfair, because [the 47 democrats] are still innocent now,” Mella said, in reference to the “innocent before being proven guilty” principle.

This was the second day of the priest’s action, which aims to urge the authorities to release detained democrats. He held a sit-in outside Stanley Prison, where other activists from the group of 47, including ex-district councillor Lester Shum and former lawmaker Eddie Chu are being held, on Thursday.

Lai Chi Kok Reception Centre. Photo: Peter Lee/HKFP.

Last year, Mella also staged a silent prayer and hunger strike outside the Lai Chi Kok centre to protest the jailing of Jimmy Lai, the founder of now-defunct pro-democracy paper Apple Daily.

The Hong Kong-based priest is known for his advocacy work supporting marginalised groups in the city, including prisoners, asylum seekers and the homeless. He has also staged hunger strikes outside the Castle Peak Bay Immigration Centre to protest the detention of refugees.

It is important we speak out loud

Authorities said that the activists’ holding of primaries ahead of the elections, an attempt to win a majority in the Legislative Council elections with their “35+” plan, was aimed at “overthrowing” the government.

The democrats could face up to life imprisonment if convicted by the High Court.

Rev. Franco Mella leads a silent sit-in action outside Lai Chi Kok Reception Centre. Photo: Peter Lee/HKFP.

Outside Lai Chi Kok Reception Centre, the Father and two other activists hung up banners reading “family reunion is a basic human rights” and “freedom for all” opposite the custody facility.

Mella said they hoped that the pro-democracy protesters to be freed before the Lunar New Year.

The priest said that while it is “not possible” to organise large rallies in Hong Kong anymore, there is still value in “small expressions” of protest.” It is important we speak out loud, not continue our lives like nothing has happened.”

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