HONG KONG – A Hong Kong court on Monday sentenced former media mogul Jimmy Lai and seven other prominent pro-democracy activists to prison for their roles last year in the attempt to commemorate the June 4, 1989 crackdown in Beijing against peaceful protesters in Tiananmen Square.
The sentences – between four months and 14 months – were the latest example of the large-scale 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. Although this case was not prosecuted under a strict national security law imposed on Hong Kong by Beijing last year, several of the defendants, including Mr. Lai, also face separate charges under of this law.
Mr Lai and 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 hosted by the Hong Kong Alliance in support to the Democratic Patriotic Movements of China, a pro-democracy group. The alliance had held these vigils, a powerful symbol of Hong Kong’s differences from the rest of China, in the park for three decades. But the government banned the rally last year, citing the coronavirus pandemic, and again this year.
Mr. Lai was sentenced to 13 months in prison by Judge Amanda J. Woodcock. Mr Lee, a former lawmaker and alliance leader, received the heaviest sentence, 14 months. A former chairman of the opposition Democratic Party, Wu Chi-wai, was sentenced to four months and two weeks.
Many of the eight prison sentences handed down on Monday had already been sentenced in other cases related to the massive pro-democracy protests that rocked Hong Kong in 2019. Mr. Lai, for example, had already been sentenced to 20 months. And he faces other security law charges, which can go as far as life imprisonment.
In statements read in court before sentencing, Mr. Lai and his co-defendants made it clear that they did not regret defying the government’s ban.
If the commemoration of the massacre was a crime, Mr. Lai wrote in a statement read by his lawyer, Robert Pang, “Let me suffer the punishment for this crime, so that I can share the burden and the glory of these young men.” and women who lost their blood on June 4 to proclaim truth, justice and goodness.
As authorities attempted to label the 2019 protests as very violent to justify their crackdown, the case made it clear that even non-violent and seemingly harmless actions had become potentially risky.
Mr Lai and Ms Chow, vice-president of the alliance, were convicted Thursday by Judge Woodcock for inciting others to participate in an unauthorized rally. By attending a press conference where they “each lit a candle at the same time” and “raised their hands in unison,” the judge wrote, they had encouraged others to attend the forbidden vigil.
Mr. Lai did not attend the vigil itself and left the park after about 15 minutes. Yet the judge wrote: âHis presence at this press conference was a deliberate act to rally support and publicly highlight the unauthorized rally that followed. He does not need to use inciting words to intend to incite others.
Ms. Chow and Ms. Ho, a journalist turned politician, were convicted of participating in the unauthorized rally. More than 20 other defendants, including the others convicted on Monday, had already pleaded guilty in connection with the rally.
Ms Chow also made a passionate pre-sentencing statement, in which she condemned the government for using public health reasons to justify what she called an explicitly political prosecution.
âLetâs not kid ourselves that this is COVID-19 and that criminalizing the vigil is only an exceptional measure at an exceptional time,â she said, reading her own statement aloud. Rather, what happened here is a step in the systemic erasure of history, both of the Tiananmen Massacre and of Hong Kong’s own history of civic resistance.
She added: âBy closing its eyes to the obvious, the tribunal risks rendering itself unrelated to the evils of our time. “
Ms Chow has also been charged under the Security Act.
Even before Monday’s sentencing, many people and organizations involved had been targeted by the government. The Hong Kong Alliance disbanded in September after officials accused it of being an âenemy of the stateâ. Apple Daily, the pro-democracy newspaper founded by Mr. Lai, also shut down in July after police raided its newsroom and arrested editors.