Hong Kong’s top court has rejected four pro-democracy figures’ attempt to launch a final appeal against convictions linked to breaching Covid-19 social distancing rules during a Labour Day protest in 2020.

Court of Final Appeal
The Court of Final Appeal. Photo: Peter Lee/HKFP.

The Labour Party’s Lee Cheuk-yan, who is currently in detention facing a subversion charge, was brought to the Court of Final Appeal in a Correctional Services Department (CSD) van on Monday morning, local media reported. He was joined in court by Mak Tak-ching, who along with Kwok Wing-kin and Stanley Ho Wai-hong had applied for leave to appeal their convictions.

They were among eight people convicted in March 2021 of violating social gathering limits after marching in two groups of four to the government’s headquarters in Admiralty as part of a Labour Day protest in 2020. The case was the first trial involving an alleged violation of the limit on group gatherings of more than four people.

Along with the Labour Party members, Avery Ng, Raphael Wong, “the Bull” Tsang Kin-shing, and “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung of the League of Social Democrats were all sentenced to 14 days’ imprisonment, with the sentence suspended for 18 months.

Lee Cheuk-yan
Lee Cheuk-yan. File photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

The High Court rejected an appeal against their conviction last October, with Judge Albert Wong upholding the ruling that the eight shared a “common purpose” and that the two groups were close to each other regardless of whether they had maintained a 1.5-metre distance.

Excluding Ng, the other seven applied for leave to appeal to the city’s highest court but were denied by the High Court. The four Labour Party members then directly filed an application for leave to appeal to the Court of Final Appeal.

‘No longer part of the law’

The pair appeared before Permanent Judges Roberto Ribeiro and Johnson Lam, and Non-Permanent Judge Robert Tang, local media reported.

Raphael Wong
Raphael Wong (left) of the League of Social Democrats outside the High Court on October 18, 2022. Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

They were represented by barrister Anson Wong, who argued that there were two points of law “of great and general importance.”

He said the court should consider whether the fact that the groups had maintained a 1.5-metre distance – as decreed by anti-epidemic measures in place at the time – should be a pre-condition for conviction, and whether the fact that the gathering, which was already considered banned, was peaceful could amount to a reasonable excuse.

Judge Ribeiro called into question whether the issues raised were of importance given that the Prevention and Control of Disease (Prohibition on Gathering) Regulation was “no longer part of the law,” to which Wong replied that similar regulations could be imposed if another pandemic occurred.

Covid-19 restaurant social distancing
A restaurant in Hong Kong under the Covid-19 pandemic. Photo: GovHK.

The judges disagreed that the two points of law were of great and general importance, and rejected the application to appeal the four defendants’ sentences. The judgement will be handed down at a later date.

On Monday, Lee entered court through an inflatable tunnel after getting out of the CSD van, as is customary for defendants who are on remand.

While defendants are often photographed entering the tunnel after getting out of a CSD vehicle, correctional services officers on Monday set up grey curtains to cover the gap, such that Lee could not be seen walking out of the van.

The Correctional Services Department told HKFP that it “reviews the escort arrangements from time to time and takes appropriate measures to protect the privacy of persons in custody.”

Court ruling ‘expected’

Speaking to reporters outside the courthouse, Mak said that he “expected” the court’s ruling, calling it a “complete denial of the freedom of assembly and procession.”

Before the Covid-19 pandemic began in 2020, Hong Kong would see large-scale Labour Day demonstrations every year with participants from across the political spectrum.

A rally originally planned for this year’s Labour Day was scrapped by Joe Wong, one of the organisers and the former chairperson of defunct pro-democracy coalition the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (HKCTU).

Mak Tak-ching of the Christian Industrial Committee. Photo: James Lee/HKFP.
Mak Tak-ching of the Labour Party. Photo: James Lee/HKFP.

Another organiser and former HKCTU member, Denny To released a statement saying that Wong had retracted the application for the march, which had yet to received police approval. That came after the group attempting to organise the march released a statement on Facebook that morning saying that Wong had disappeared from his home at 7.30 am.

In his statement, To said Wong “regained his freedom” but had experienced an “emotional meltdown” and was under tremendous pressure.

The HKCTU announced its decision to disband citing threats to members’ safety in September 2021. It was among the 50-odd civil society groups that folded in the wake of the Beijing-imposed national security law.

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James Lee is a reporter at Hong Kong Free Press with an interest in culture and social issues. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English and a minor in Journalism from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, where he witnessed the institution’s transformation over the course of the 2019 extradition bill protests and after the passing of the Beijing-imposed security law.

Since joining HKFP in 2023, he has covered local politics, the city’s housing crisis, as well as landmark court cases including the 47 democrats national security trial. He was previously a reporter at The Standard where he interviewed pro-establishment heavyweights and extensively covered the Covid-19 pandemic and Hong Kong’s political overhauls under the national security law.