Nine veteran Hong Kong democracy activists — including publisher Jimmy Lai — will be sentenced on Friday for their roles in one of the city’s biggest-ever protests.
Organizers say 1.7 million people — almost one quarter of Hong Kong’s population — turned out for a huge rally that formed the backbone of demonstrations that wracked the city throughout 2019.
The nine include some of Hong Kong’s most prominent democracy campaigners, many of whom have spent decades advocating non-violence in their ultimately fruitless campaign for universal suffrage.
They are the latest in a string of anti-establishment figures to face the courts as China implements a sweeping crackdown on dissent.
Supporters, family members, journalists and diplomats — representing the EU, the United States, Canada, Sweden, Australia, and Germany — were present at the hearing.
Among the defendants are Martin Lee, 82, a respected barrister known as the “father of democracy” in Hong Kong, who was once chosen by Beijing to help write the city’s mini-constitution.
They also include Margaret Ng, a 73-year-old barrister and former opposition lawmaker.
Media tycoon Lai, 73, was brought to the court from custody, where he is being held after arrest under Beijing’s new national security law.
All nine were convicted of organizing an unauthorized assembly on August 18, 2019, which called for democracy and greater police accountability.
Seven defendants who had earlier pleaded not guilty submitted their mitigation on Friday morning.
“There is no right so precious to the people of Hong Kong as the freedom of expression and the freedom of peaceful assembly,” said Ng, who discharged her legal team and gave her statement in person.
She added that she’s prepared to stand with and stand up for the people who “in the last resort, had to give collective expression of their anguish and urge the government to respond”.
“I stand the law’s good servant but the people’s first,” said Ng, whose submission ended with a round of loud applause in courtroom.
Judge Amanda Woodcock earlier said in her verdict that the march had caused serious traffic disruption and the fact the march was peaceful was no defense.
The sentencing is expected to be handed down later on Friday.
“I’m ready for the sentencing and I’m proud that I can walk with the people of HK in this road for democracy… We’ll walk together through the storm even in darkness,” former lawmaker Lee Cheuk-yan said outside court ahead of the hearing.
Lee and Jimmy Lai had pleaded guilty to taking part in another illegal assembly on August 31, 2019. The maximum penalty is five years in prison and the sentencing will also be handed down on the same afternoon.
The rallies in 2019 often descended into clashes between riot police and a knot of hardcore participants, and posed the most concerted challenge to China’s rule since the former British colony’s 1997 handover.
Since then, authorities have unleashed a broad crackdown with the imposition of a sweeping security law that criminalizes much dissent, and passed a radical overhaul of the city’s electoral system.