Five Hong Kong speech therapists have each been sentenced to 19 months behind bars under the colonial-era sedition law. They were convicted of publishing a series of illustrated books that effectively “brainwashed” young readers, a judge ruled.

District Judge Kwok Wai-kin meted out jail terms to Lorie Lai, Melody Yeung, Sidney Ng, Samuel Chan and Fong Tsz-ho on Saturday, three days after he found them guilty of conspiring to print, publish, distribute and display three books with seditious intent between June 2020 and July 2021.

A page from a picture book produced by the General Union of Hong Kong Speech Therapists. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

The books in question, which were about sheep and wolves, were said to have alluded to the 2019 anti-extradition bill unrest, the detention of 12 Hong Kong fugitives by the Chinese authorities, and a strike staged by Hong Kong medics at the start of the Covid-19 outbreak. 

The five executive committee members of the General Union of Hong Kong Speech Therapists, aged between 26 and 29, had denied the charge.

‘In effect brainwashing’

When handing down the sentence, judge Kwok said what the speech therapists did with the illustrated books was “in effect brainwashing” young readers.

Fear, hatred, discontent and disaffection were “instilled” in the minds of children through the books’ publication, Kwok said. He cited a media interview one of the defendants gave, in which the speech therapist said some young readers told them they would “fight” the wolves, while others said they would run away from the wolves.

“Once they have internalised this mindset… the seed of instability has actually been sown in the HKSAR,” the judge said.

Members from the disbanded Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions held up paper masks of sheep at the West Kowloon Law Courts Building on July 23, 2021 to show solidarity with the speech therapists. File Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

Kwok said the three books had enjoyed wide circulation through hard copies, audio books and a reading guide for parents.

The five speech therapists were described as “equal participants” in the conspiracy, which Kwok said lasted for a substantial period of time and was only stopped by the arrests of those involved.

Since the group has been detained for more than a year already, defence lawyers estimated that the speech therapists could be released in about a month.

Acknowledging this, Kwok asked: “You are going to leave custody soon. My question to you is, when are you going to leave the prison of your mind?”

Some Hong Kong children play at a musical fountain in Kwun Tong. Photo: GovHK.

He urged the defendants to consider whether they had “really put the truth” in front of young readers. He asked why the speech therapists had not mentioned the “military invasion” of China that resulted in Hong Kong being ceded and leased to Britain.

He said children were like a piece of “blank paper” and should be taught to love their country and homeland. He questioned whether the speech therapists were “really honest” when the books they published brushed parts of Hong Kong’s history “under the carpet.”

“If you stick to the same thinking that motivated you, all of you, to publish these books… you are locking yourself in your mind. You cannot deny the relationship between the PRC and the HKSAR,” Kwok said.

“I am not one to teach you… I think you are smart people and you can make up your mind,” he added.

Children’s books. Photo: Holmes Chan/HKFP.

The judge set 21 months as the starting point of the sentence for each defendant. Considering that the speech therapists had been “cooperative” throughout the trial and had no prior criminal record, Kwok reduced their jail time by two months and sentenced each of them to 19 months behind bars.

Family, friends and supporters of the defendants in the public gallery – some of whom had arrived at District Court before 7 a.m. to secure limited spaces for the sentencing – waved goodbye to the group as they were escorted out of the dock. Some court goers shouted: “Happy Mid-Autumn Festival, everyone!”

‘Always on the side of the sheep’

During mitigation on Saturday, union chairperson Lorie Lai and external vice-chair Melody Yeung dismissed their legal representatives and made their own final submissions. Lai said she wanted to share her views on the five-day trial and reflect on the 13 months she has spent in custody pending trial.

“How free are we? Is free speech really free? Is freedom with limitations really freedom?” Lai asked. Judge Kwok interjected and said the union chief’s submission could amount to a political statement, which would not be allowed in court.

He said if Lai disagreed with his verdict, or the arguments raised by the prosecution, she could file an appeal, instead of challenging it during the mitigation stage.

“Our courts are not an imperious place,” the judge said, to which some court attendees tittered.

Judge Kwok Wai-kin. Photo: GovHK.

The judge went on to say that freedom was not absolute and legal principles were clear and backed by precedents. He said the court would not discuss the matter further, adding he already read the written mitigation plea and letters Lai’s lawyer had filed.

Asked if she wanted to continue with her submission, Lai said: “I don’t have anything to say.”

Yeung, the union’s external vice-chief, told the court that she “did not regret” printing the illustrated books. She quoted Martin Luther King Jr, saying “a riot is the language of the unheard.” Rather than judging whether the speech therapists had breached the sedition law, Yeung said their trial marked a verdict on the “the correct historical perspective.”

Yeung rushed through her statement as both the judge and lead prosecutor Laura Ng interrupted her speech. Ng said the defendant had “crossed the line.”

“I do not regret my choice, and I hope I can stand on the side of the sheep from the beginning till the end. My only regret is I did not get to publish more illustrated books before being arrested,” she told the court.

Some court attendees sobbed after Yeung finished her speech.

The speech therapists’ book. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

Representing the union’s secretary Sidney Ng, barrister Anson Wong read out a two-page letter handwritten by the defendant, in which Ng said that the “objective impact” of prosecuting the speech therapists’ union amounted to “threatening” civil society.

Wong went on to read out Ng’s defence of the books, saying their publication was not intended to incite hatred but rather to explain to young readers “the source of those emotions,” and how they “intensified after 2019.”

“Rather than saying it encouraged breaching the law, it should be said that [the books] made children reflect on the basis of abiding by the law, rather than obeying blindly out of fear,” the barrister said, citing Ng’s letter.

‘Very serious offence’

In a 67-page-long verdict handed down on Wednesday, Kwok ruled the children’s books were seditious publications. He said the first book about sheep guarding their village against the wolves implied that the Chinese authorities were wolves, while the Hong Kong chief executive was a wolf who “masqueraded as a sheep” and was instructed by the “Wolf-chairman.”

Such a plot would lead readers, some of whom could be as young as four years old, to hate the Chinese authorities by causing them to believe that the Chinese government was “coming to Hong Kong with the wicked intention of taking away their home.”

District Court. Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

The book also depicted the ill-fated extradition bill, which triggered months of violent protests in the city in 2019, as a tool to “supress dissenting Hong Kong residents,” Kwok said. Children reading the book would therefore not trust the administration of justice and law enforcement in Hong Kong, he said.

All five defendants took part in the conspiracy through their positions in the union, Kwok ruled, adding the group that was founded in the wake of the 2019 unrest was “clearly set up for political purposes.”

During the trial in July, prosecutors had likened sedition to treason and said it was a “very serious offence.” The defence, on the other hand, criticised the recently resurrected legislation as having “wide parameters” and said it “lacked clarity,” saying it may be misused to clamp down on dissenting voices.

Sedition is not covered by the Beijing-imposed national security law, which targets secession, subversion, collusion with foreign forces and terrorist acts and mandates up to life imprisonment. Those convicted under the sedition law face a maximum penalty of two years in prison. 

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Kelly Ho

Kelly Ho has an interest in local politics, education and sports. She formerly worked at South China Morning Post Young Post, where she specialised in reporting on issues related to Hong Kong youth. She has a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Hong Kong, with a second major in Politics and Public Administration.