A reason well-known democrats – including jailed media tycoon Jimmy Lai – showed up at a 2019 anti-extradition bill rally was to facilitate an “orderly dispersal,” a Hong Kong court has heard. Seven pro-democracy figures sought to overturn their convictions and sentences linked to the assembly at the Court of Appeal on Tuesday.

A protest in Victoria Park on Aug. 18, 2019. Photo: May James/HKFP.

The court continued to hear arguments concerning the appeal bid by Lai, legal heavyweights Martin Lee and Margaret Ng, and former lawmakers “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung, Lee Cheuk-yan, Albert Ho and Cyd Ho. They were convicted of organising and knowingly taking part in an unauthorised assembly on August 18, 2019.

The group were sentenced to up to 18 months behind bars, while some saw their prison terms suspended.

Representing the 74-year-old media mogul, Senior Counsel Audrey Eu told the three-judge appeal panel that it was not a case of good luck that there was no “untoward” conduct at the gathering in Victoria Park. Over one million people – according to organiser estimates – entered and exited the park dynamically to rally against the police use of force during the citywide protests sparked by the now-axed extradition bill.

The Civil Human Rights Front, which obtained a letter of no objection from the police to organise a static rally in Causeway Bay, had invited the defendants to turn up at the event to assist large crowds to disperse in an orderly manner, the lawyer argued.

Audrey Eu arriving at High Court on Nov. 28, 2022. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

“[The defendants] are known for peace, not for [throwing] gas bombs… it was the plan of the organisers,” she told the panel, which consisted of justices Andrew Colin Macrae, Maggie Poon and Anthea Pang.

Instead of penalising the seven prominent pro-democracy figures, the court should look at the presence of the democrats as a way of maintaining peace and enabling people to “vent strong feelings at difficult times,” Eu said.

She added that the media mogul was only a member of the public, and he had relied on public announcements and instructions made by the Front regarding the dispersal.

A ‘dispersal plan’

Senior Counsel Philip Dykes, on the other hand, argued on behalf of Lee Cheuk-yan and Cyd Ho that the rally was not a public procession but rather just a dispersal plan announced by the organisers. He also pointed to the lack of evidence showing that police had warned participants against taking part in the rally.

The trial judge should not have categorised the rally as a public procession simply based on “the face of it,” said another Senior Counsel Ambrose Ho, Margaret Ng’s representative. Citing a liaison meeting between the Front and the police, in which then-leaders of the now-disbanded group raised “genuine concerns” about public safety, Ambrose Ho said the court should take into account the purpose of the public meeting. He argued that it was, at least in part, to ensure the crowds would disperse in an orderly manner.

High Court. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

“There should be the benefit of the doubt… the charge would not make out,” he said.

The hearing was adjourned to Wednesday morning for the remaining appellants to make their cases.

Heavy police presence

Police presence remained heavy around the courthouse in Admiralty on Tuesday, with a police coach parked outside an entrance for correctional vehicles. Armed uniform police were on patrol, while some plainclothes officers sat in the extension court to observe the hearing.

Tuesday’s proceeding was briefly interrupted when the Judiciary staff informed the court at around 11 a.m. that a court attendee took photos of the broadcast of the hearing in the extension court and disseminated the photos with text in Chinese.

Justice Macrae ordered a 15-minute recess to consider the matter and eventually decided to pass the incident to the police for investigation. The Force told HKFP on Tuesday that officers gave verbal warning to a man and no arrest has been made so far.

The Judiciary. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

In response to HKFP’s enquiries, the Judiciary said it would not comment on the incident. Many notices are put up inside the court buildings to remind court users that no photography and video recording is allowed, it said.

“If anyone is suspected of breaching the regulation, the Judiciary will look into the incident. Follow-up actions would be taken based on the actual circumstances, including transferring the case to the police,” a spokesperson for the Judiciary said.

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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.