Hong Kong protests: media boss Jimmy Lai and two ex-lawmakers face up to five years in jail for joining illegal rally

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Hong Kong media tycoon Jimmy Lai Chee-ying and two former lawmakers are facing up to five years in jail after they admitted to joining an illegal anti-government protest in 2019.

Lai, 73, pleaded guilty on Wednesday in the District Court to knowingly taking part in an unauthorised assembly on August 31, 2019, more than two months into the social unrest that rocked the city that year.

Veteran opposition figures and ex-lawmakers Yeung Sum, 73, and Lee Cheuk-yan, 64, admitted the same offence but remained defiant after their conviction, saying they did not regret their actions, which were a show of civil disobedience.

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Former lawmaker Lee Cheuk-yan arrives at court on Wednesday. Photo: Nora Tam
Former lawmaker Lee Cheuk-yan arrives at court on Wednesday. Photo: Nora Tam

Judge Amanda Woodcock postponed sentencing to April 16, when she is expected to also hand down punishment to Lai, Lee and seven other former lawmakers in another case stemming from a separate protest on August 18, 2019. Taking part in an unauthorised assembly is punishable by five years in jail under the Public Order Ordinance.

The court heard the three defendants, along with more than 2,000 others, took part in the procession which had not been sanctioned by police. Prosecutor Priscilia Lam Tsz-ying said the march was held under the pretence of a religious event to pray for “sinners in Hong Kong”.

The ordinance allows religious gatherings and assemblies to be convened without police approval, but not public processions of any purpose.

The participants snubbed police warnings as they assembled in Wan Chai’s Southorn Playground and walked towards St John’s Cathedral in Central, seriously disrupting traffic, according to the prosecution.

Video footage of the event shows the demonstrators chanting slogans including “Five demands, not one less”, a rallying cry of the anti-government movement, and “Hongkongers, add oil” – Cantonese slang used to express support or encouragement. They can also be heard singing the Christian hymn Sing Hallelujah to the Lord, the unofficial “anthem” of the protests.

During the march, Lai told reporters he was fighting for the five demands – including the full withdrawal of a government extradition bill – adding he would not be intimidated by police. Lee insisted he had the right to protest, while Yeung could be seen chanting slogans and giving directions to other participants.

Anti-government protesters take to the streets on August 31, 2019. Photo: Sam Tsang
Anti-government protesters take to the streets on August 31, 2019. Photo: Sam Tsang

Edwin Choy Wai-bond SC, representing Lai, said in mitigation the owner of the tabloid-style Apple Daily newspaper decided to take part in the demonstration as he, a high-profile figure, felt a sense of duty to be there during the social unrest.

Choy called the publishing mogul a “well-respected businessman” who had climbed the social ladder through his own endeavour. In Lai’s early years, he worked in a small garment factory in Guangdong province in mainland China while studying, before starting the international fashion brand Giordano in the 1980s and switching to the media industry a decade later. Lai was also a “family man” loved by his six children and eight grandchildren, the defence said.

Choy urged the judge to consider either a fine or suspended jail sentence given the “very peaceful” nature of the protest, adding Lai suffered from diabetes, high blood pressure and insomnia.

“He has contributed to the economy in Hong Kong and the variety of news media,” Choy said. “It is clear that the underlying motive was to voice discontent against the government and police … We do not believe a custodial sentence is called for.”

Yeung, speaking for himself in court, said he had deliberately broken the law as a show of civil disobedience and had no remorse for his actions.

“I stood up to join the protest in order to make my point: Hongkongers should be able to exercise their constitutionally protected rights to protest. I also wished to protest against police abusing their power by arbitrarily banning peaceful demonstrations and depriving Hongkongers of their civil rights,” he said. “I am willing to defy the law and to be sanctioned by it.”

Lee said he took part in the illegal activity as part of his 43-year fight for basic rights and democracy. He urged the judge and the legal profession as a whole to “open their eyes to the suffering of the people and reflect on which side the law is with”.

“I plead guilty, but I have done no wrong in affirming the rights of people to peaceful procession, and I believe history will absolve me,” Lee wrote in a letter to the court that was read out by his lawyer Anson Wong Yu-yat. “I have no regret for standing up for the rights of the people.”

Woodcock declined a request by the prosecution to revoke the trio’s bail, saying she had not decided whether to jail them. Lai, who was remanded after being charged under the national security law in a separate matter, will remain in custody.

Lee said outside court he might enter a similar plea of guilty in an upcoming trial next month stemming from a protest on October 1, 2019, saying it would save legal expenses. The former lawmaker also revealed he had appealed against his conviction last Thursday over his participation in the August 18 rally.

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