Media tycoon Jimmy Lai and seven other Hong Kong pro-democracy activists have been sentenced to as many as 14 months in prison for their roles in a banned vigil held last year for the victims of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.
A candlelit ceremony had been held every June 4 until 2020, when police banned the event on pandemic grounds, despite the fact Hong Kong had few cases at the time. Large crowds turned up regardless, ignoring police barriers around Victoria Park to hold a peaceful commemoration. It did not result in a mass infection.
Handing down her sentence Monday, Judge Amanda Woodcock said the defendants “ignored and belittled a genuine public health crisis” and “wrongly and arrogantly believed” in commemorating June 4 rather than protecting the health of the community.
Mr. Lai, 74, lawyer Chow Hang Tung, 36, and activist Gwyneth Ho, 31, received sentences of 13, 12 and six months, respectively. They had all pleaded not guilty.
Five others who had pleaded guilty, including Lee Cheuk-yan, leader of the now-disbanded Hong Kong Alliance, which organized the vigil, were sentenced to between four and 14 months.
“If there was a provocateur, it is the regime that fired at its own people,” an emotional Mr. Lee told the court last month. “If I must go to jail to affirm my will, then so be it.”
Many of the defendants are facing other charges or are already serving sentences connected to a mass crackdown on Hong Kong’s opposition movement that began when Beijing imposed a national security law on the city, banning what the government described as the promotion of secession, subversion and collusion with foreign forces.
The law came into force weeks after the June 4 memorial. This year the ceremony was again banned on pandemic grounds, but crowds did not defy the order, fearing arrest. An annual pro-democracy march on July 1 also did not go ahead after police refused to authorize it, detaining Ms. Chow and others hours before it would have started.
Other areas of society have also been affected. Mr. Lai’s pro-democracy tabloid, Apple Daily, was forced to close down, and he and numerous other senior executives were charged under the national security law. Civil society groups have disbanded, and new election rules mean a poll next week will include no candidates from traditional opposition parties, with most former lawmakers in prison or in exile.
In a mitigation letter from prison, Mr. Lai said that if it is a crime to “commemorate those who died because of injustice … then inflict on me that crime and let me suffer the punishment of this crime, so I may share the burden and glory of those young men and women who shed their blood on June 4th.”
Since his arrest last year and amid a growing number of court cases, Mr. Lai has become an international symbol of Hong Kong’s shrinking press freedoms.
This month, he and his newsroom were awarded the Golden Pen of Freedom by the World Association of News Publishers. In her acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize last week, Filipina-American journalist Maria Ressa included Mr. Lai in a list of media figures “forced to sacrifice so much to hold the line.”
Supporters also recently launched a campaign in solidarity with Mr. Lai, designed to bring attention to the fact the septuagenarian could spend the rest of his life in prison once his court cases are finished.
“I want to make certain that as many people as possible around the world stand up for Jimmy Lai, who is a hero of everybody who believes in freedom, liberty and the rule of law,” said Chris Patten, the last British colonial governor of Hong Kong, in a video message posted to the “Letter For Lai” website.
Canadian Conservative MP Garnett Genuis also posted a video, saying he stood with Mr. Lai “and the people of Hong Kong in their fight for freedom.”
With almost every prominent pro-democracy figure in prison or in exile, optimism is often in short supply within the opposition movement. Ms. Chow, who was a vice-chair of the Hong Kong Alliance before it disbanded, proved to be the exception in court.
“If those in power had wished to kill the movement with prosecution and imprisonment, they shall be sorely disappointed,” she said in a statement. “Indeed, what they have done is breathe new life into the movement, rallying a new generation to this long struggle for truth, justice and democracy.”
With reporting from Reuters and Janice Dickson.
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