A Hong Kong court on Thursday convicted seven pro-democracy activists for organizing illegal meetings. Among those convicted are 82-year-old lawyer Martin Lee and media businessman Jimmy Lai, 72. All the convicts are over 60 years old.
It was the most recent blow to the movement against Chinese interference in the autonomy of the territory, a former British colony that returned to Beijing in 1997 under specific conditions that would guarantee freedoms unknown on the continent, such as the freedom of the press and the independence of the judiciary.
Lee, who in the 1990s helped found the Democratic Party, the largest opposition wing in Hong Kong, and is often referred to as the “father of democracy” in the territory, has been accused of participating. at an unauthorized meeting in August 2019.
Although Hong Kong’s mini-constitution guarantees the right to peaceful assembly, the judge in charge of the case recalled that certain restrictions are imposed to preserve public safety and order. The sentence will be handed down on April 16 and experts say they expect a prison term of between 12 and 18 months. The maximum possible penalty is five years in prison.
The other convicts are Margaret Ng, 73, lawyer; and veteran Democrats Lee Cheuk-yan, 64, Albert Ho, 69, Leung Kwok-hung, 65, and Cyd Ho, 66. Two other accused activists pleaded guilty.
“Peaceful assembly is not a crime,” Leung Kwok-hung shouted as he entered the courtroom. Outside, a small group held banners in support of the accused. During the trial, defense lawyers argued that freedom of assembly is a constitutional right in Hong Kong and that police approved peaceful acts in the center of the territory – then classified as unauthorized marches.
The prosecution, in turn, said freedom of assembly was not absolute in Hong Kong.
Critics, including several Western governments, have condemned the court’s rulings in Asia. 47 other activists face charges of subversion under the National Security Act.
US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said in a statement that China severely limits the rights and freedoms of the people of Hong Kong, through arbitrary arrests and politically motivated charges, and puts pressure on the judiciary, universities and the press.
The 2019 democracy protests were prompted by Beijing’s increasingly intense action on the broad freedoms promised in Hong Kong after its return to Chinese rule. The protests plunged the semi-autonomous territory into its biggest crisis since 1997.
Since then, Beijing has imposed a national security law, punishing any act that considers division, subversion, terrorism, or collusion with foreign forces – with the possibility of life imprisonment.
Since the law was enacted in June last year, the government has sought to stop the opposition movement and protests, as well as suppress political expression and reform the local electoral system to ensure that only Pro-Chinese “patriots” rule Hong Kong. .
However, officials at the territory and China say the security law and electoral reforms are necessary to restore stability and human rights will be preserved.