The plea hearing for five members of pro-democracy group the League of Social Democrats (LSD) accused of participating in a “prohibited group gathering” has been adjourned until February.
The delay was permitted to await the results of an application for leave to appeal against a separate conviction under the same Covid regulations launched by the LSD and members of the Labour party.
LSD chairperson Chan Po-ying, former chair Raphael Wong, former lawmaker Leung Kwok-hung, and members Chau Shu-wing, Tsang Kin-shing, Leung Chi-fai and Sun Ho-ming appeared in front of Magistrate Edward Wong at the Eastern Magistrates’ Courts on Tuesday morning.
They were among eight LSD members who stood accused of participating in a “prohibited group gathering” against Hong Kong’s Covid-19 regulations on April 30, 2020 near the police headquarters at Wan Chai.
Leung Chi-fai and Sun pleaded guilty during Tuesday’s hearing.
The maximum penalty for the offence is a HK$25,000 fine and imprisonment of up to six months.
The eighth co-defendant, Lee Ko-fung, earlier pleaded guilty and was fined HK$4,500.
Chan, Chau and Tsang’s lawyer asked for the case to be adjourned until an application filed by the LSD and the Labour Party for leave to appeal a conviction and sentence under the same Covid-19 social-distancing regulations has been settled.
After receiving no objections from the prosecution, the magistrate adjourned the plea hearing for the remaining five defendants until February 15.
‘Relatively new’ restrictions
According to the summary of facts read out by the prosecution, all eight participated in an assembly organised by the LSD near the police headquarters on April 30, 2020. The prosecution said the group had twice ignored requests made by the police for them to leave. Officers then stepped in to stop their assembly and ticketed the participants.
At the time, public gatherings of more than four people were prohibited under Covid-19 laws, and groups were required to maintain at least 1.5 metres between them. According to police witnesses, the LSD members stood about a metre apart from each other.
During mitigation, the lawyer representing Leung Chi-fai and Sun cited a report from state-backed newspaper Wen Wei Po published on May 1, 2020, titled: “A hundred days into the fight against the pandemic and victory is in sight.” The court heard how the Covid-19 situation was less severe then than it is now, and people believed the epidemic was coming to an end.
The barrister added that his two clients were peaceful and cooperative during the incident. He also reminded the court that the Covid-19 gathering restrictions were “relatively new” at that time, and the assembly in question only lasted for 12 minutes.
LSD members were executing their freedom of demonstration guaranteed by Hong Kong’s Basic Law, the lawyer added, saying they were protesting against a police rejection of the defunct Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions’ proposed Labour Day rally in 2020.
Leung Chi-fai and Sun were ordered to each pay a fine of HK$4,500.
Public gathering limit debate
The appeal application in question relates to a separate case, in which members of the LSD and the Labour Party were convicted of breaching Covid rules by magistrate Cheang Kei-hong after marching in two groups of four to the government’s headquarters in Admiralty as part of a Labour Day protest in 2020.
They were sentenced to 14 days in prison, with a 18 month-suspension.
Their first appeal was rejected in October, upholding the initial ruling that they shared a “common purpose.” The judge also ruled that Covid-19 gathering limitations had achieved “a reasonable balance” between societal benefits and the restrictions they placed on people’s right to assembly.
A public gathering limit has been in place in the city since March 29, 2020 – two months after the city recorded its first Covid-19 infection. The authorities’ latest adjustment in October raised the maximum number of people allowed in a public gathering from four to 12.
After Tuesday’s court hearing concluded, Chan and Tsang spoke to the press holding a wooden sword that was 1.5 metres long.
“We hope that in the Court of Final Appeal, there will be a fairer… or more logical judgement,” Chan said, adding that they felt it was “unreasonable” for two groups of four to be found in breach of the public gathering rule even when they stayed 1.5 metres apart.
“Why were special arrangements made for the global financial summit? Because the government has to strike a balance between the economy and epidemic-control,” Chan said.
“However it has never thought to strike a balance between civil rights and fighting the pandemic,” she added.