Veteran HK Activists Jailed for Peaceful Protest: “I Stand the Law’s Good Servant But the People’s First”

On Friday, 12 veteran pro-democracy activists were handed jail sentences—five of them suspended—for their involvement in two protests in 2019. Those sentenced include pro-democracy figures active in the city since Hong Kong’s 1997 handover, including media tycoon Jimmy Lai, legal heavyweight Margaret Ng, and Hong Kong’s “father of democracy” Martin Lee.

Dr. Ng is a 73 year old Cambridge-educated barrister, one-time deputy editor-in-chief of Ming Pao, and lawmaker for the legal constituency for 17 years. In a rousing mitigation speech already being described as destined—one day—for Hong Kong’s history books, Ng explained her understanding of the rule of law and the role of the courts and lawyers in society:

[…] The law is not perfect and lawyers know more than anyone else how imperfect the law is. So why should people respect and obey the law? There are, of course, many answers, but the answer I gave myself is this: we can ask people to obey the law if it is the best approximation of justice. Which implies that we are duty bound to listen to criticisms of the law, and make sincere efforts to make the law better, and correct mistakes as much as possible. Justice is the soul of the law without which the rule of law descends to the level of rule by force, even if it is force by majority.

[…] Those years in LegCo had repercussions for me for life because, your honour, defending the rule of law means we ourselves must take rights seriously, and this is a lifelong endeavour.

There is no right so precious to the people of Hong Kong as the freedom of expression and the freedom of peaceful assembly. Not only is the freedom to speak the truth the core of human dignity, it is also the last safety valve in a democratic society, as remarked by our illustrious judges repeatedly. Respecting those rights is also part and parcel of defending the rule of law.

I had learned that the rule of law not only has to be defended in court, or in LegCo, but also in the streets and in the community. Your honour, I had spoken countless times in LegCo. But I also realize that it is not good enough for me to make speeches in the beautiful words and measured dignity in the precincts of the Legislative Council, shielded by the privilege of absolute freedom of speech and debate, and immunity from legal action. When the people, in the last resort, had to give collective expression to their anguish and urge the government to respond, protected only by their expectation that the government will respect their rights, I must be prepared to stand with them, stand by them and stand up for them. Otherwise, all my pledges and promises would be just empty words. [Source]

For her participation in a 1.7 million-person strong protest on August 18 2019, on the first weekend in weeks in which not one single police-protestor clash was recorded, Ng was handed a 12 month suspended jail sentence. South China Morning Post’s Brian Wong and Chris Lau reported on the sentences received by other veteran pro-democracy leaders:

Publishing tycoon Jimmy Lai Chee-ying was jailed for 14 months on Friday in back-to-back sentencing for his role in two illegal protests during Hong Kong’s anti-government unrest in 2019, while four former opposition lawmakers who joined one or both demonstrations were also sent to prison.

Democratic Party founding chairman Martin Lee Chu-ming was given an 11-month suspended sentence for joining one of the protests, an unauthorised march on August 18, 2019, while veteran democrat and barrister Margaret Ng Ngoi-yee was also spared jail in a 12-month suspended sentence.

The jail sentences of eight to 18 months for five out of 10 opposition figures who appeared at West Kowloon Court marked the toughest punishments to date for Hong Kong’s most prominent pan-democratic politicians over the mass protests that rocked the city for a year.

“I am very shocked and disappointed with the approach adopted by the judge,” said former Democratic Party chairman Albert Ho Chun-yan, who received a one-year suspended sentence. [Source]

Fellow activists and academics expressed shock at the severity of the sentences. The New York Times’ Austin Ramzy quoted one expert who suggested the sentences revealed a major shift in the treatment of protests by the courts in the new political environment:

“It’s excessive, entirely out of proportion. What have they done to deserve such severe punishments?” said Fernando Cheung, a former lawmaker. “It was a peaceful demonstration for the public to display people’s discontent. All these political leaders have done was walking with the people.”

[…] “It’s very clear that the approach has changed radically, not just by courts and police,” said Sharron Fast, a media law lecturer at the University of Hong Kong. “The emphasis is on deterrence; the emphasis is on punishment. And with large-scale assemblies, the risk is very high.”

[…] In the illegal assembly case, the court rejected defense arguments that imprisonment for a nonviolent march would infringe on the rights to free speech and assembly that have traditionally been protected in Hong Kong.

Judge Amanda Woodcock said on April 1, when the convictions were announced, that while Hong Kong recognizes the right to peaceful assembly, the law imposes limits to ensure safety, order and the rights of others. To refrain from prosecution just because a demonstration was peaceful “would give the law no teeth and make a mockery of it,” she wrote in her ruling. [Source]

Samuel Chu, a U.S.-based pro-democracy lobbyist and the son of pastor and 2014 protest organizer Chu Yiu-ming, described the prosecution of Lee and Ng after their convictions earlier this month as “a trial on the legacy of the elder statesmen/women, an attempt to discredit their lifetime contributions to the city, to grassroots neighborhoods, to workers and their professions, to campaign volunteers and voters.”

It is difficult, if not impossible, to tell the modern history of Hong Kong without mentioning the roles played by the 12 convicted veteran activists. Solicitor Albert Ho and trade union leader Lee Cheuk-yan helped to lead the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, responsible for the annual Tiananmen vigil in the city’s Victoria Park. Last year, the vigil was banned for the first time since 1990. Lee himself travelled to Beijing during the 1989 protests to hand over donations that he collected in Hong Kong. He was detained during the crackdown, and forced to sign a confession letter before being allowed to return to Hong Kong.

Lee was sentenced on Friday to a year in prison. Ho, a veteran lawmaker and pro bono human rights lawyer, was also sentenced on Friday. He succeeded Martin Lee and Yeung Sum (yet another of those sentenced) as chairman of the Democratic Party of Hong Kong in 2004, and was the pro-democracy camp’s Chief Executive candidate in 2012. In 2014, Ho represented Edward Snowden during his brief stay in Hong Kong, liaising with the government about how to handle his case as the U.S. pressed for his extradition.

Cyd Ho (unrelated to Albert), a two-term lawmaker and founding member of the city’s Labour Party, was one of the earliest advocates for LGBT rights in Hong Kong, putting forward a proposal in 2012 to ban sexual orientation based-discrimination in Hong Kong. Ho was sentenced to eight months in prison.

The others sentenced include Leung Yiu-chung, whose tenure in the Legislative Council lasted a quarter of a century, as well as Au Nok-hin and Leung Kwok-hung, two of the 47 activists separately charged with “subversion” for their involvement in the 2020 pro-democracy camp primary election. Leung Kwok-hung, famously nicknamed “Long Hair” for his signature mane that he refuses to cut until the Tiananmen Massacre is rehabilitated, received the longest sentence on Friday, at 18 months. A former lawmaker and self-described Marxist, he single-handedly pioneered the strategy of using the legislature as a platform for public protest, and was the first to use the oath-taking process as a platform for political activism.

This practice was later adopted by younger activists, leading to their disqualification from office in 2016. A subsequent interpretation of the Basic Law by the NPC Standing Committee forced the disqualification of activists including Nathan Law, and paved the way for further exclusions in the years that followed, keeping prominent pro-democracy activists from running for elected office. That disqualification process was solidified into law as part the overhaul of city’s electoral system put forward by the Hong Kong government this week, which effectively ends decades of democratic progress in the city.

In a year of democratic backsliding for Hong Kong, this week can be seen as a kind of culmination of repression of the city’s imperilled pro-democracy movement. On Tuesday, the government revealed its 600+-page umbrella bill that will effectively lock the opposition camp out of political office. The day before the sentencings, the city celebrated National Security Education Day with goose-step marches and by handing children toy assault rifles and riot gear memorabilia.

But amid all of this, the activists have urged hope and resilience. “Stand tall,” Jimmy Lai wrote in a letter from prison earlier this week. Lee Cheuk-yan recited the words of Liverpool Football Club’s anthem: “You’ll never walk alone.” And in the closing sentences of Margaret Ng’s statement (continued from above), she pleaded:

[…] Your honour, the Hong Kong people is a peace-loving and well-disciplined people. Their resolute self-restraint even in highly emotional situations has been proved time and again. In the critical hours of the handover between 30 June and 1 July 1997 the great event passed without a hitch. In the march of half a million on 1 July 2003, not a single pane of glass was broken. Even in 2019, when over 1 million marched on 9 June, and over 2 million marched on 16 June. The peace and good of the massive crowds astonished and won the admiration of the world.

And in the incident of the present trial, this was demonstrated again. By the estimation of the organisers, over 1.7 million participated in the day’s event. But whatever the exact figure, the huge and dense crowds in and around the venue, the resolute patience with which the crowds waited in the pouring rain, were captured in undisputed footages preserved for all posterity. The number and the perseverance spoke volumes for the intensity of the feelings in the community, and yet the self-restraint was for all to see. It is not disputed even for the prosecution that the event was entirely peaceful and orderly, without any untoward event. The crowd had kept faith with the organizers who enjoined them to be “peaceful, rational and non-violent”. At such times we cannot be seen to abandon the people but must stand side by side with them, in the hope that peace may prevail.

The positive effect the peacefulness of that demonstration was acknowledged by the CE, Mrs Carrie Lam 2 days later, remarking that it would facilitate dialogue between government and the public. In the event, the dialogue on that occasion did not continue for long, but it was a step in the right direction. I believe we should nurture hope, and continue, as Justice Kennedy urged upon the legal profession gathered together in that distinguished company: You must speak reason to your litigants. You must speak justice to society. You must speak truth to power.

Your honour, I came late to the law. I have grown old in the service of the rule of law. I understand Sir Thomas More is the patron saint of the legal profession. He was tried for treason because he would not bend the law to the King’s will. His famous last words were well authenticated. I beg to slightly adapt and adopt them: I stand the law’s good servant but the people’s first. For the law must serve the people, not the people the law. [Source]

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