On Thursday, April 1st, a group of seven leading Hong Kong democracy activists were each convicted for their organization of, or participation in, ‘unlawful assembly’, a reference to the 2019 largely peaceful democratic protests against the introduction of a problematic extradition bill. The prison sentences for Jimmy Lai, Martin Lee, Albert Ho, Leung Kwok-hung, Lee Cheuk-yan, Cyd Ho, and Margaret Ng are to be announced at a later date, though the minimum sentence for such charge is 5 years. Presiding judge Amanda Woodcock claimed that “the prosecution is able to prove beyond reasonable doubt that all the defendants organized what amounted to an unauthorized assembly on August 18, 2019.”
The August 18, 2019 incident judge Woodcock was referring to was the day in which over approximately 1.7 million people of all walks of life peacefully marched from Victoria Park to Central District in the pouring rain to demand “greater government accountability and an independent investigation into police brutality.” More specifically, protesters defied the introduction of a problematic bill which would allow police to arrest individuals in Hong Kong – mainly, those who have been critical of China’s overarching influence on the special administrative region – and extradite them to mainland China, where they would be tried in a judicial system fraught with corruption and almost-guaranteed convictions. In response to the protests, which had actually been going on for 11 weeks prior to August 18th, and to international criticism, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced on 4 September that she would withdrawal the bill.
August 18, 2019 was unlike the previous months of protests and the protests in the months after, was entirely peaceful, as demonstrators gathered together to walk under their umbrellas, hold posters, and chant phrases like “Stand with Hong Kong! Fight for Freedom!” and “Reclaim Hong Kong, revolution of our era!” Nearly every other Hong Kong protest in 2019, however, was characterized by violence on both sides, as police used water cannons, tear gas, and rubber bullets; meanwhile, demonstrators launched projectiles, firebombs, and Molotov cocktails.
The 7 charged individuals are extremely high-profile democracy advocates. Jimmy Lai, whose real name is Lai Chee-Ying, in addition to being an entrepreneur, is the founder of Apple Daily, a newspaper which openly supports Hong Kong democracy and criticizes the Chinese government. Martin Lee, a Hong Kong politician revered as the “father of democracy”, is the founder of the first ever Hong Kong pro-democracy political party. Albert Ho is a human rights attorney and the recipient of the 2020 Roger N. Baldwin Medal of Liberty awarded by Human Rights First. Leung Kwok-hung, affectionately nicknamed ‘Long Hair’ by his fans for his chest-length silver hair, was first an anti-British colonialism activist before he became an anti-China critic and former legislator; he was stabbed in an attack by an elderly man in April 2020. Lee Cheuk-yan is a former member of the Legislative Council of Hong Kong and currently serves as the Secretary of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China. Lee’s organization hosts annual candlelight vigils to remember the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. Cyd Ho is also a former member of the legislative council and is the co-founder of the Hong Kong Labour Party alongside Lee Cheuk-yan. Margaret Ng Ngoi-yee is a politician, former legislator, barrister, and columnist that writes for Apple Daily and formerly for South China Morning Post. In January 2021 she authored an article “Subversion of Democracy” for Apple Daily.
These charges come just a few days following Beijing’s passage of a new, allegedly “patriotic” law which would completely restructure Hong Kong’s electoral system. Among the changes would be that 90 legislative seats will be added, only 20 of which will be publicly elected. Prior to the implementation, the Hong Kong legislature consisted of 70 seats, exactly half of which were democratically elected by the public.
Just before their charges were read, Lee Cheuk-yan thanked the Hong Kong people for their support and asserted that “We will still march on, no matter what lies in the future. We believe in the people of Hong Kong. The victory is ours if the people of Hong Kong are persistent.”