A Hong Kong pro-democracy union that held a street booth to distribute pandemic supplies in 2020 should be exempted from the Covid-19 ban, the defence has argued.

Covid-19 public gathering limit
A banner warning against group gatherings. File photo: Rhoda Kwan/HKFP.

Four members of the Construction Site Workers General Union – Tsang Ho-yuen, Yung Ka-man, Wong Chun-yu and May Lam – appeared at Eastern Magistrates’ Court on Monday. They face charges of participating in a prohibited group gathering over a street booth they held in Admiralty three years ago, at which they passed out face masks and displayed political slogans.

The incident occurred on May 6, 2020, when police officers observed around 10 people at a street booth on a footbridge over Harcourt Road. An officer issued a warning to Lam and reminded people at the scene not to gather in groups of more than four. At the time, a Covid-19 gathering ban was in place.

According to InMedia, police issued four more warnings to the union members, urging them to leave or reduce their gathering size to four people, the court heard, before issuing penalty notices.

The Construction Site Workers General Union was a group under the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions, which was the city’s largest pro-democracy union coalition before it disbanded in 2021 in the wake of the national security law.

The Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

In June 2020, Beijing inserted national security legislation directly into Hong Kong’s mini-constitution – bypassing the local legislature – following a year of pro-democracy protests and unrest. It criminalised subversion, secession, collusion with foreign forces and terrorist acts, which were broadly defined to include disruption to transport and other infrastructure. The move gave police sweeping new powers, alarming democrats, civil society groups and trade partners, as such laws have been used broadly to silence and punish dissidents in China. However, the authorities say it has restored stability and peace to the city.

Six other defendants earlier pleaded guilty to participating in a prohibited gathering over the street booth. They were fined between HK$4,000 and HK$4,500, InMedia reported.

Political slogans displayed

The court heard that besides pandemic supplies, police noted that there were banners and posters with political slogans displayed at the street booth.

Among the slogans were “five demands, not one less,” a chant that was popular during the protests in 2019, as well as “the union front is a path in resistance.”

The police officer who issued the warnings that day testified in court on Monday. The defence argued that when warnings were given, the union members explained that the street booth was for anti-epidemic purposes and therefore should be exempted from the Covid-19 gathering rules.

Eastern Magistrates' Courts
Eastern Magistrates’ Courts. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

Under anti-epidemic laws, group gatherings for “imparting information or skills, or handling supplies or items, that are conducive to the prevention and control of the specified disease” are exempted.

But the officer said he did not accept that the street booth was for anti-epidemic purposes because the posters displayed at the booth were all related to political demands and not Covid-19. And when Wong – one of the defendants, was speaking through a megaphone, he was mostly talking about political demands, the officer added.

When the defence asked the officer if he saw people holding up face masks and hand sanitiser at the street booth, he said he “could not remember.”

The trial will continue on Tuesday.

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Hillary has an interest in social issues and politics. Previously, she reported on Asia broadly - including on Hong Kong's 2019 protests - for TIME Magazine and covered local news at Coconuts Hong Kong.