Hong Kong media tycoon Jimmy Lai Chee-ying and six former lawmakers, including veteran opposition campaigner Martin Lee Chu-ming, have been convicted of organising and taking part in an unauthorised anti-government protest in 2019.
Lawyers for the seven, as well as two other ex-legislators who pleaded guilty before the trial, will submit mitigations on April 16.
The judge extended bail for the nine until the next hearing, but Lai and co-defendants “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung and Au Nok-hin, both former lawmakers, will remain behind bars, as they had been remanded after being charged under the national security law.
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Following his conviction, Leung remained defiant in the dock, shouting: “Shame on political prosecution! Peaceful demonstration is not a crime!”
The District Court trial – held at West Kowloon Court to accommodate the large amount of interest in the case – centred on an unauthorised procession on August 18, 2019, which came amid the social unrest sparked by the since-withdrawn extradition bill.
Prosecutors accused the seven of turning an approved assembly in Victoria Park into an illegal march to Central under the pretext of crowd control. Defence lawyers argued the accused were merely leading rally participants out of the park to alleviate overcrowding.
On Thursday, Judge Amanda Woodcock found there had been no need to disperse hundreds of thousands of participants from Victoria Park in the form of a de facto procession, as there was no evidence that exit routes were inaccessible or problematic, or that the park was so overcrowded a stampede or risk of serious injuries were imminent.
Instead, the judge said the seven had displayed an unequivocal intention to stage the illegal event, as they led the procession by carrying a huge banner, walking out of the park and chanting slogans on the way.
“I am sure this public procession was not about dispersal of crowds. That was a description used to defy the law and circumvent the ban. This intention was vocalised repeatedly and publicly days before the public meeting. It was only a dispersal plan in name, and the truth is it was a planned unauthorised assembly,” Woodcock wrote in her 89-page judgment.
As to the withdrawal of about 100 police officers from the park just after the demonstration began, Woodcock agreed with the commanding officers testifying in court that far from neglecting their duties, police were being “prudent” as they hoped to minimise the risk of violence or confrontation that day.
The judge went on to rule the offence of unauthorised assembly constitutional, citing a 2005 ruling by the top court.
The Court of Final Appeal held in that judgment that police could, for the sake of public order, restrict freedom of assembly and procession through a notification scheme in which protesters are required to obtain police approval to stage demonstrations.
The defence had argued the 2005 ruling was not binding in the present case, as it did not focus on whether the sanctions imposed under the Public Order Ordinance were proportionate and legal.
But Woodcock held on Thursday that the 15-year-old precedent upheld the constitutionality of all aspects of the police scheme, including Section 17A of the ordinance which criminalises unauthorised assemblies. She observed that even Kemal Bokhary, a former permanent judge at the top court who dissented in the 2005 judgment, considered the offence lawful.
Woodcock found the August 18 march “was not without reprehensible conduct”, as the event had caused serious traffic disruption. She also rejected the argument that the seven had a reasonable excuse for their acts because the assembly was not violent.
“It cannot be right that to arrest and prosecute is disproportionate in this case because no actual violence broke out. That would give the law no teeth and make a mockery of it,” the judge added.
Woodcock further dismissed the notion that the seven’s prosecution was disproportionate, saying the criminal court had no jurisdiction to determine on the issue, especially when the defence had not argued prosecutors had abused the court’s process.
The other defendants were former lawmakers Lee Cheuk-yan, Albert Ho Chun-yan, Cyd Ho Sau-lan and Margaret Ng Ngoi-yee. Two other ex-legislators – Au and Leung Yiu-chung – pleaded guilty in February before the trial began. The result was set to have a bearing on court cases involving five other unapproved assemblies.
Au is also serving a nine-week jail sentence for yelling at a policeman and pushing another officer at another protest in 2019.
Cyd Ho, of the Labour Party, said she was “disappointed” by the verdict, adding that the case reflected the erosion of freedom of speech and expression. “The collapse of Hong Kong’s political regime will [cause it to] become a hotbed for corruption,” she said.
Her party colleague, Lee Cheuk-yan, said he still firmly believed people were entitled to stage protests without police approval.
“The court has made the judgment that a police ban can override our constitutional rights,” he said, claiming such jail sentences would now be a “badge of honour” for defendants who “walk with the people of Hong Kong”.
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