HONG KONG— Martin Lee, the 82-year old lawyer credited with helping found Hong Kong’s democracy movement, and newspaper publisher Jimmy Lai were among seven veteran activists found guilty by a judge on charges related to a mass demonstration in 2019.
The Thursday guilty verdicts raise the prospect of jail time for a prominent group of democracy campaigners who have been fighting to preserve the rule of law in the former British colony since before it was returned to China in the late 1990s. Sentencing on the charges, which can carry up to five years’ jail time, was set for later this month.
“We believe we were just exercising our constitutional rights to protest come what may,” said the labor leader Lee Cheuk-yan, one of the defendants, after the verdict. “It will be a badge of honor for us to go to jail for fighting for freedom and rights for Hong Kong people.”
The trial is part of a wave of prosecutions under way in Hong Kong as China crushes dissent in the former British colony. Amid a continuing crackdown that worsened last year when China imposed a sweeping national security law, many of the city’s democracy campaigners are now either on trial, in jail or living in exile.
After the judge read out the verdict Thursday, a lead prosecutor called on the judge to revoke bail until sentencing, saying the offenses were serious and risked plunging Hong Kong into anarchy by undermining public order. Defendants however, were granted bail but can’t leave Hong Kong.
The group was found guilty of organizing and attending an unauthorized assembly in August 2019, a rainy day in which hundreds of thousands of people gathered in the city Hong Kong to protest the mainland government’s growing intervention in the city.
Police initially approved a gathering at Hong Kong’s Victoria Park, but declared it illegal after the huge crowds overflowed into the streets. Many marched to the city’s financial district in defiance of a ban on a procession outside the park.
Many of the activists found guilty on Thursday are facing additional illegal assembly charges in upcoming trials stemming from other days of protest. Two other defendants earlier pleaded guilty.
Hong Kong’s mainland-backed authorities are also prosecuting 47 mostly younger pro-democracy politicians on a more serious charge of subversion after a citywide primary election they participated in was declared in violation of the new national security law, which was imposed on the city by China just before midnight on June 30.
Those charges carry sentences of up to life in prison.
“The democracy movement has transitioned from protesting in the streets to defending itself in court,” said Avery Ng, secretary general of the League of Social Democrats, who attended the trial. He is also awaiting trial on protest-related charges.
Mr. Lee is a gray haired, U.K.-trained lawyer who co-founded the city’s first pro-democracy party and helped write Hong Kong’s foundational legal document, the Basic Law. The guilty verdict was his first in a lifetime of peaceful activism that has been carried out meticulously within the law.
Revered in Hong Kong, Mr. Lee has been singled out for criticism for decades by Beijing as a symbol of democratic opposition to authoritarian Communist Party rule. Many in Hong Kong see his prosecution as an indicator of how far Beijing plans to go to stamp out dissent in Hong Kong.
Meantime Mr. Lai, the publisher of Hong Kong’s stridently pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily, is facing a number of legal charges, including a charge of foreign collusion under the new national security law. That could put him behind bars for the rest of his life.
A rags-to-riches media tycoon in his early 70s, Mr. Lai has also been an outspoken critic of the Communist Party dating back to the Tiananmen Massacre in 1989. After the protests began in 2019, Mr. Lai made-high profile visits to the U.S. to meet with officials including then-Vice President Mike Pence and build support for Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement. He is already in custody and appeared in court surrounded by police in green jumpsuits.
Others charged include Margaret Ng, a 73-year-old barrister; Albert Ho, a 69-year-old lawyer and activist; and Leung Kwok-hung, also 64, a longtime politician and activist known as “Long Hair.”
Police arrested the group in early-morning raids in April 2020. About two weeks later, China said it would impose the national security law on Hong Kong.
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