Hong Kong Court Hands Down Jail Terms to Pro-Democracy Activists, Drawing International Criticism

April 16, 2021 Updated: April 19, 2021

Hong Kong media tycoon Jimmy Lai was sentenced to 14 months in prison, while eight other activists received jail time or suspended sentences on Friday for organizing and participating in unauthorized assemblies during mass anti-Beijing, pro-democracy protests in 2019.

Martin Lee, an 82-year-old barrister who has been dubbed the “father of democracy” in Hong Kong, was handed a suspended sentence of 11 months for taking part in a protest on Aug. 18, 2019.

Lai, 72, the owner of local paper Apple Daily, was found guilty in two separate trials for unauthorized assemblies on Aug. 18 and Aug. 31 2019, respectively. He received a 15-month sentence for the first, reduced by three months in mitigation, and an eight-month sentence for the second, of which he will serve two.

Lai was also slapped with two additional charges Friday, one under the national security law accusing him of conspiring to collude with foreign powers and another accusing him of helping local activists to escape the city.

Prior to sentencing, Lai was already being held on other charges, including a previous charge of foreign collusion to intervene in the city’s affairs—a new crime under a sweeping national security law that Beijing imposed on the city in 2020.

Lee Cheuk-yan, 64, former lawmaker and chairman of Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, was sentenced to a total of 14 months in prison for his participation in the two August 2019 marches.

Lawyers Albert Ho and Margaret Ng both had their 12-month jail sentences suspended for two years. Former lawmaker Leung Kwok-hung was sentenced to 18 months, while another former legislator, Cyd Ho, was given a jail sentence of eight months.

Two other former lawmakers, Au Nok-hin and Leung Yiu-chung, who previously pleaded guilty, were also given jail sentences. Au got 10 months while Leung’s eight-month jail term was suspended for one year.

In a separate case, former lawmaker Yeung Sum, was sentenced alongside Lai and Lee Cheuk-yan for their participation in the unauthorized assembly on Aug. 31, 2019, although his eight-month sentence was suspended for a year.

“I’m ready to face the penalty and sentencing and I’m proud that I can walk with the people of Hong Kong for this democracy,” Lee Cheuk-yan said ahead of the court session, as supporters held up signs condemning political persecution. “We will walk together even in darkness, we will walk with hope in our hearts.”

Epoch Times Photo
Martin Lee, an 82-year-old barrister who has been dubbed the “father of democracy” in Hong Kong, waves to supporters outside of the West Kowloon court buliding in Hong Kong on April 16, 2021. (Song Pi-lung/The Epoch Times)

On Aug. 18, 2019, a rally at Victoria Park organized by the local pro-democracy group Civil Human Rights Front drew more than 1.7 million Hongkongers in protest against an extradition bill that would allow the Chinese Communist Party to send people charged with a crime in Hong Kong to China for trial. The police approved of the rally but did not approve an ensuing march.

The sentences immediately drew international criticism, including Canadian, U.S., and UK lawmakers.

“The Chinese Communist Party continues to impose its authoritarian grip on Hong Kong, and the imprisonment of pro-democracy leaders is just the latest in a long history of their repression and censorship,” stated Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s subcommittee on East Asia, according to a statement.

Romney added: “We call for the immediate release of Jimmy Lai, Lee Cheuk-yan, and the other activists sentenced today and stand with the people of Hong Kong in their fight for freedom and democracy.”

Canadian MP Jenny Kwan stated: “Canada must immediately act to bring in asylum measures for Hongkongers who fear political persecution.”

Before being sentenced, seven of the activists, including Lai, Ng, and Martin Lee, made their mitigation pleas before a judge at the West Kowloon court building on Friday morning.

Ng, a barrister, discharged her lawyers and delivered her mitigation speech herself.

“When the people, in the last resort, had to give collective expression to their anguish and urge the government to respond, protected only by their expectation that the government will respect their rights, I must be prepared to stand with them, stand by them and stand up for them,” Ng said.

She added: “Otherwise, all my pledges and promises would be just empty words.”

Ng was the recipient of the 2020 American Bar Association International Human Rights Award, in recognition of her accomplishments in advancing democracy in Hong Kong. She was a member of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council (LegCo) from 1995 to 1997 and from 1998 to 2012.

About 100 people queued up outside the West Kowloon court building on Friday morning to hear the case and voiced support for the activists. Among them were consular representatives from multiple countries, including Australia, Canada, France, and Sweden, as well as Charles Whiteley, deputy head of the European Union Office to Hong Kong and Macao.

Hong Kong
(L-R) Consular representatives from Australia, Canada, Sweden, France, and the Netherlands, outside of the West Kowloon Courts Building in Hong Kong on April 16, 2021. (Sung Pi-lung/The Epoch Times)

When Hong Kong was transferred from British to Beijing rule in 1997, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) had promised to allow the city autonomy and freedoms not enjoyed in the mainland for 50 years, under a framework known as “one country, two systems.” However, in the past year, the CCP has introduced measures drastically curtailing freedoms and democracy in Hong Kong, that many fear is making the city no different from the mainland.

On July 1 last year, Lee Cheuk-yan testified remotely (pdf) before a House congressional hearing, during which he criticized Beijing’s draconian national security, which went into effect a day earlier. He said the law “sounded the death knell for ‘One Country, Two Systems.’”

The national security law punishes vaguely defined crimes such as subversion and secession with a maximum penalty of life imprisonment.

“With the destruction of ‘One Country, Two System[s]’ and Rule of Law and in its place Rule of Fear, Hongkongers have to learn to live and survive in a suppressive environment and still retain the will to resist,” Lee said in his testimony.

The Associated Press and the Hong Kong bureau of The Epoch Times contributed to this article. 

Follow Frank on Twitter: @HwaiDer