Seven of Hong Kong’s leading pro-democracy advocates, including a media tycoon and an 82-year-old veteran of the movement, were convicted on Thursday of unlawful assembly by organising and participating in a 2019 march during massive anti-government protests that triggered a crackdown on dissent.
The march was in opposition to a bill that would have allowed suspects to be extradited to mainland China for trial.
The verdict was the latest blow to the increasingly cowed democracy movement as the Hong Kong and Beijing governments tighten their grip in efforts to exert greater control over the semi-autonomous Chinese territory.
Media tycoon Jimmy Lai and veteran politician Martin Lee were among those found guilty in a ruling handed down by a district judge.
All seven had pleaded not guilty but now face up to five years in jail. They will be sentenced at a later date. Some of them are also facing other charges under the Beijing-imposed national security law.
Lai is one of the most prominent supporters of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement. Estimated to be worth more than US$1bn, he made his initial fortune in the clothing industry and later ventured into media and founded Next Digital, publisher of Apple Daily, a popular tabloid which is frequently critical of Hong Kong and mainland Chinese leadership.
In a local media landscape increasingly fearful of Beijing, Lai has been a persistent thorn in China’s side, both through his publications and writing.
It has seen him become a hero for many Hong Kong but on the mainland he is viewed as a traitor who threatens Chinese national security.
Interviewed by the BBC before his arrest earlier in December, he said he would not give in to intimidation.
“If they can induce fear in you, that’s the cheapest way to control you and the most effective way and they know it. The only way to defeat the way of intimidation is to face up to fear and don’t let it frighten you.”
Martin Lee, the 82-year-old veteran of Hong Kong’s struggle for political rights, is the founding chairman of the Democratic Party.
Known as the father of Hong Kong democracy, he said in 2020 he was “very much relieved” by his arrest.
“For so many years, so many months, so many good youngsters were arrested and charged, while I was not arrested. I feel sorry about it,” he said.
Many of the seven have been at the heart of the pro-democracy struggle for years dating back to the Umbrella Movement in 2014 and even further.
After waves of pro-democracy protests, Beijing is increasingly cracking down on the city’s rights and freedoms.
The prosecution argued that freedom of assembly – while granted in the constitution – is not absolute in Hong Kong.