Four members of a Hong Kong pro-democracy union have been fined HK$6,000 each after being found guilty of breaching Covid-19 gathering rules three years ago.

Police Covid Group gathering mask
A banner warning against group gatherings. File photo: Lea Mok/HKFP.

Tsang Ho-yuen, Yung Ka-man, Wong Chun-yu and May Lam, of the Construction Site Workers General Union, appeared before a judge on Thursday after pleading not guilty earlier. They faced charges of participating in a prohibited group gathering over a street booth they held in Admiralty on May 6, 2020, where they handed out anti-epidemic supplies.

At the time, a Covid-19 gathering ban capped at four people was in place.

During the trial in May, the defence argued that the group should be exempted from the gathering ban as they were distributing pandemic supplies. They cited anti-epidemic laws, which excluded group gatherings for “imparting information or skills, or handling supplies or items, that are conducive to the prevention and control of the specified disease.”

Handing down the verdict on Thursday, magistrate Edward Wong sided with the prosecution that the exception did not apply in this case, and that the four displayed banners and played recordings at the street booth which contained wording with no relation to Covid-19, The Witness reported. They included “liberate construction sites” and “five demands, not one less,” a chant popularised during the protests and unrest in 2019.

Construction Site Workers General Union
The Construction Site Workers General Union at a protest in 2016. Photo: Construction Site Workers General Union, via Facebook.

Wong added that there was no evidence suggesting that passing out pandemic supplies required more than four people to gather. According to The Witness, Wong also said the location where they held the street booth – a footbridge over Harcourt Road that connected to the government headquarters – did not have much foot traffic, and if they had wanted to distribute supplies, they should not have done so there.

Meanwhile, the defence argued that the local epidemic situation was not severe at the time of the offence, with 17 consecutive days of the city recording zero local cases. They added that the government relaxed the gathering limit to eight people the next day.

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

National security law
Photo: GovHK.

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.

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.

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Hillary Leung is a journalist at Hong Kong Free Press, where she reports on local politics and social issues, and assists with editing. Since joining in late 2021, she has covered the Covid-19 pandemic, political court cases including the 47 democrats national security trial, and challenges faced by minority communities.

Born and raised in Hong Kong, Hillary completed her undergraduate degree in journalism and sociology at the University of Hong Kong. She worked at TIME Magazine in 2019, where she wrote about Asia and overnight US news before turning her focus to the protests that began that summer. At Coconuts Hong Kong, she covered general news and wrote features, including about a Black Lives Matter march that drew controversy amid the local pro-democracy movement and two sisters who were born to a domestic worker and lived undocumented for 30 years in Hong Kong.