Jimmy Lai and Seven Other Hong Kong Pro-democracy Figures Sentenced for Participating in 2020 Tiananmen Vigil

On Monday, Apple Daily founder Jimmy Lai and seven other pro-democracy figures were sentenced in a Hong Kong district court to prison terms of up to 14 months for taking part in a June 2020 vigil to commemorate the 1989 Tiananmen massacre. The vigil, which had been held annually for over three decades, was banned by Hong Kong authorities in 2020, ostensibly due to the COVID pandemic. The defendants, some of whom are facing other charges, will be allowed to serve their sentences concurrently. Lai is already serving 20 months in jail for his participation in 2019 anti-government protests, and faces possible life imprisonment for charges under Hong Kong’s national security law. Vivian Wang and Austin Ramzy of the The New York Times detailed the history of the vigil and the significance of the prosecutions:

The sentences — between four months and 14 months — were the latest example of the wide-ranging crackdown on dissent and free speech in the city, a former British colony that once had significantly stronger civil liberties than the rest of China. While this case was not prosecuted under a stringent national security law imposed on Hong Kong by Beijing last year, several of the defendants, including Mr. Lai, also face separate charges under that law.

Mr. Lai and the other activists — including Chow Hang-tung, Gwyneth Ho and Lee Cheuk-Yan — gathered on June 4 last year in Victoria Park before an annual vigil organized by the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, a pro-democracy group. The alliance had hosted those vigils, a potent symbol of Hong Kong’s differences from the rest of China, in the park for three decades. But the government banned the gathering last year, citing the coronavirus pandemic, and again this year. [Source]

Earlier that day, the defendants were allowed to enter mitigation pleas, making eloquent arguments about the peaceful nature of the vigil and their right to mark the anniversary. Candice Chau of the Hong Kong Free Press reported on the mitigation pleas and the response in the courtroom:

In her mitigation letter, organiser Chow [Hang-tung] remained defiant, arguing that “the government’s blatant attempt at erasing history and suppressing activism must be resisted.” Lai, in turn, wrote that if commemorating those who “died because of injustice is a crime, then inflict on me that crime and let me suffer the punishment…”

Meanwhile, [Gwyneth] Ho said in her statement that the sentencing was a “sentence on every single Hongkonger in Victoria Park on the night of June 4, 2020.”

Ahead of his sentencing, Choi [Richard Tsoi] told reporters outside court that “what we have done in the past was done openly under the sun, history will judge our work.”

After the sentences were handed down, someone in the court gallery shouted “mourning is not a crime,” while the others waved at the democrats as they left the dock. [Source]

In the text of her judgment, district court Judge Amanda Woodcock cited the need for “deterrent” sentences. Her description of Jimmy Lai’s appearance at the vigil emphasized his supposed “incitement” of others:

  1. As usual and as anticipated, when the 4th defendant did arrive at Victoria Park he was surrounded and followed by photographers and reporters. His presence at that press conference was a deliberate act to rally support for and publicly spotlight the unauthorised assembly that followed. He need not use words of incitement to intend to incite others.
  2. He was interviewed later that evening after attending a church service to commemorate the date and said he was encouraged and inspired by the large turnout of those who did enter Victoria Park that night. That was immediately after the press conference he attended which I find was for the purpose of inciting others without lawful authority or reasonable excuse, to knowingly take part in an unauthorised assembly. [Source]

The prosecution is the latest in an escalating series of steps aimed at curtailing civil society groups in Hong Kong and their ability to discuss or even commemorate past events in ways that do not align with the Chinese Communist Party’s vision of history. Hong Kong authorities permanently banned the Tiananmen vigil in June, and in September, arrested members of the Alliance, raided the June 4 Museum and blocked its website. In October, the administration of Hong Kong University ordered the removal of the Pillar of Shame, a sculpture by Danish artist Jens Galschiøt, which was created to memorialize and honor the victims of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre. In addition, the “democracy walls” at many Hong Kong universities have been sterilized, teachers have cancelled lessons on the Tiananmen massacre, and schools are forced to use new textbooks that promote “patriotic education” and censor images of the Tiananmen Square protests

In her mitigation statement, Chow Hang-tung summed up the purpose of the annual vigil, and hinted at what its cancellation and criminalization mean for the future of Hong Kong:

What stands condemned here is 31 years of effort in calling those criminals to account, in standing beside victims of the Massacre, in continuing their unfinished quest for democracy. In designating the vigil as criminal a proud tradition of Hong Kong stands condemned, signifying to the world that this city is no longer the haven for free speech it once was. One Country has completely overwhelmed Two Systems, leaving no trace of the kind of life we once took for granted, including the freedom to light a candle on June 4th. [Source]


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