Hong Kong’s “Father of Democracy,” Six Others, Convicted of Illegal Assembly

On Wednesday, March 31, Hong Kong’s “father of democracy” Martin Lee, media mogul Jimmy Lai, politician “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung, barrister Margaret Ng, and three others were convicted of illegal assembly for their leadership role in a peaceful 2019 march. During the August 18 march, an estimated 1.7 million people defied a ban to protest in the pouring rain, walking from Victoria Park towards Central, Hong Kong’s business district. Although expected, the conviction of the mostly elderly coalition of democracy activists—Martin Lee is an octogenarian—is a dark moment for freedom of assembly in Hong Kong. The group will face sentencing later in April. At The , detailed how a peaceful march became a means for the government to arrest prominent voices for democracy

The case centered on a rally on Aug. 18, 2019, when hundreds of thousands of people gathered in an antigovernment protest.

That gathering had received police approval. But what followed did not. The defendants were accused of leading protesters out of Victoria Park on Hong Kong Island, beginning a march that led toward the core business district. While there was no violence and minimal disorder, prosecutors argued that the march violated Hong Kong’s public order ordinance.

Their lawyers argued that leading protesters out of the park, which had filled with many more people than it could handle, was necessary for public safety. They also said that imprisoning them over a peaceful march was a heavy-handed application of the law. [Source]

At The South China Morning Post, Brian Wong reported on the details of Judge Woodcock’s ruling:

On Thursday, Judge Amanda Woodcock found there had been no need to disperse hundreds of thousands of participants from Victoria Park in the form of a de facto procession, as there was no evidence that exit routes were inaccessible or problematic, or that the park was so overcrowded a stampede or risk of serious injuries were imminent.

[…] “I am sure this public procession was not about dispersal of crowds. That was a description used to defy the law and circumvent the ban. This intention was vocalised repeatedly and publicly days before the public meeting. It was only a dispersal plan in name, and the truth is it was a planned unauthorised assembly,” Woodcock wrote in her 89-page judgment.

[…] Woodcock found the August 18 march “was not without reprehensible conduct”, as the event had caused serious traffic disruption. She also rejected the argument that the seven had a reasonable excuse for their acts because the assembly was not violent. [Source]

Eminent legal scholar Jerome A. Cohen wrote that Woodcock’s opinion was “reasoned” and that “she may emerge from this with added prestige from handling a controversial case in a responsible way, even though the outcome is politically disappointing to many of us.” The United States’ 2021 Hong Kong Policy Act Report, released on Wednesday, concluded that the Hong Kong government “generally respected judicial independence and impartiality,” despite increased interference by Chinese state media and officials. At The Wall Street Journal, John Lyons reported on democracy activists potential sentences, as well as the judge’s decision to grant the convicted bail:

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.”

[…] 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. [Source]

The hearing drew a crowd of protestors who shouted slogans from the 2019 anti-extradition movement, detailed Scott Neuman of National Public :

“Ahead of the decision, supporters and some of the defendants gathered outside the court, shouting ‘Oppose political persecution’ and reiterating a key slogan of the protests: ‘Five demands, not one less.’” [Source]

Lee has campaigned for democracy in Hong Kong since the 1980s. When the British transferred Hong Kong to Chinese control in 1997, Lee said, “The flame of democracy has been ignited and is burning in the hearts of our people. It will not be extinguished.” Under Chinese rule Lee was a persistent, moderate force for democratic reforms. Before his 2020 arrest and 2021 conviction, Lee had never been in trouble with the law. Upon his arrest last year, Lee said, “I’ve felt bad to see so many outstanding youngsters being arrested and prosecuted, but I was not charged. Now I’ve finally become a defendant. I feel proud that I have a chance to walk this path of democracy together with them.” In an opinion piece published in The Washington Post, Lee noted that if the extradition bill he was protesting had passed, he might have faced trail in China. At The AFP, Jerome Taylor profiled the life and activism of the venerable democracy campaigner:

In the broad spectrum of Hong Kong’s democracy advocates, 82-year-old Martin Lee would not be considered a firebrand.

For decades he has campaigned in vain to see democracy in Hong Kong but always advocated working alongside authorities in Beijing, even as they branded him a traitor.

He was critical of younger generations that favoured a more confrontational approach and remained a vocal opponent of political violence.

[…] After the handover, Britain’s Prince Charles wrote in a diary entry: “Thus we left Hong Kong to her fate and the hope that Martin Lee, the leader of the Democrats, would not be arrested.”

[…] He remained defiant.

“Even if you jail me, kill me, I will still point out it’s their fault. Democracy will come to China one day.” [Source]

Apple Daily publisher Jimmy Lai was also convicted of illegal assembly on Wednesday. He potentially faces life in prison for other charges brought under the National Security Law. The charges against Lee, Lai, and the others are part of a coordinated campaign to bring Hong Kong under the People’s Republic of China’s control. In just the past few weeks, Hong Kong’s election system was radically changed with all candidates now undergoing vetting by national security police; 47 pro-democracy politicians were charged with subversion for taking part in an informal primary in July 2020; and Beijing’s calls for “patriotic politicians” means elected officials must take a loyalty oath as they are sworn into office. At Bloomberg News, Kari Soo Lindberg and Chloe Lo situated the charges against Lee and Lai within the broader assault on Hong Kong’s freedoms:

“The government has chosen 15 people very carefully out of the 1.7 million protesters, and all are moderate democratic activists and politicians,” Davis said. “It’s very hard to separate this trial from the current effort to prevent participation in the political process.”

[…] Chinese authorities have accused [Lee] of being a “traitor” for testifying before the U.S. Congress, and in August 2019 labeled him as part of a “New Gang of Four” in a publication under the Communist Party’s top legal body. The piece also named Lai and Ho, a former Democratic Party leader and chief executive candidate, as members of the “gang” — a reference to a Communist Party faction jailed for attempting to seize power after Mao Zedong’s death in 1976.

[…] “But once Hong Kong’s human rights and rule of law are rolled back, the fatal virus of authoritarian rule will be here to stay,” [Lee] said. [Source]

Chinese state media celebrated the convictions, labeling Lai a “modern-day Traitor” and intimating that more punishment lay in store. Cui Fandi for Global Times:

Lai also faces other serious charges under the national security law for Hong Kong, including colluding with foreign forces to endanger national security, which was widely seen as a high-profile case. The 73-year-old has been considered a “modern-day traitor” for his notorious acts and deeds in instigating one of the most violent and chaotic riots in the city in 2019. He was repeatedly denied bail over the past few months as a risk of continuing to commit acts that may endanger national security.

[…] This ruling is symbolic as we can see from it that the Hong Kong courts have made fair judgments based on facts and laws, and have formed a constructive and benign interaction with social development, rather than becoming a tool of certain political forces to sway over, Li Xiaobing, an expert on Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan studies at Nankai University in Tianjin, told the Global Times on Thursday.

[…] “Today’s ruling will also serve as background information reference for other charges against Lai in the future, so that the judge can understand his character and make a fair decision and sentence that can have a deterrence effect on those anti-government rioters,” Wong noted. [Source]

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