Hong Kong: Pro-democracy activists jailed for illegal assembly | News | DW | 16.04.2021
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Hong Kong: Pro-democracy activists jailed for illegal assembly

Media tycoon Jimmy Lai is among those sentenced for their role in a pro-democracy march in 2019. The defendants were found guilty this month of organizing and participating in unauthorized assemblies.

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Hong Kong media tycoon Jimmy Lai and eight other pro-democracy activists were sentenced on Friday for illegal assembly.

Lai received a 14-month jail term, relating to two different charges.

The activists were found guilty earlier this month of organizing and participating in unauthorized assemblies, including one in August 2019, where an estimated 1.7 million people marched in opposition to a bill that would have allowed suspects to be extradited to mainland China for trial.

The protests sparked a widespread crackdown.

"I think it is a very sad day for Hong Kong's democracy movement, but it is not unexpected," Steve Tsang, a political scientist and the director of the SOAS China Institute in London, told DW. The sentence "sends a very clear message to many people in Hong Kong that peaceful demonstrations are no longer tolerated."

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First sentence for Lai

Lai is one of Hong Kong's most prominent pro-democracy activists. He has been in jail since December 2020 after being denied bail in a separate national security trial. It is the first time he receives a sentence.

Lai was found guilty in two separate trials earlier in April for participating in illegal assemblies on August 18 and August 31, 2019. Lai was initially handed a 15-month sentence for the first charge, reduced by three months in mitigation, and an eight-month sentence for the second, of which he will serve two.

Friday's sentencing marks the latest move in the ongoing crackdown by Beijing and Hong Kong authorities on dissent in the global financial hub.

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Also among the defendants was Martin Lee. The 82-year-old barrister is known as the "father of democracy" in Hong Kong and was once chosen by Beijing to help write the city's mini-constitution. He was given a suspended jail sentence of 11 months.

Security law to make future terms harsher

Despite criticism over the sentences, Tsang said the terms issued against other activists, under the controversial national security law "are likely to be sentenced much more harshly" than Friday's sentences.

"The whole arrangement under the new security law is such that only judges who are expected to understand what the Chinese government wants to be done under the national security law will be allowed to seek and preside over those cases," he said.

"I think we have to accept that the national security law was introduced to make sure that there is no more democracy movement in Hong Kong, that democracy in Hong Kong in the future will be a democracy with the characteristics of the Chinese Communist Party."

'The worst is yet to come'

Human rights lawyer Albert Ho, who also faced sentencing, told DW that "there is no room for optimism nowadays in Hong Kong."

"We are facing a very difficult time and the worst is yet to come," said Ho. 

"The police are now vigorously abusing their power to try to stifle our rights and freedom of assembly," Ho told DW. "Whenever there is any breach of the regulation, although the breach was in the form of very peaceful demonstrations, the prosecution will proceed to prosecute very vigorously."

He criticized the basis of many of the charges against other activists, and said that local judges are under pressure to prosecute within Hong Kong. Those who can't be sentenced under the local system could risk being taken back to China for sentencing under the national security law. 

"Even the charges are very shaky. Their evidence is flimsy," he said. "All of this created a very chilling atmosphere. I won’t say that our judicial system has completely fallen apart, because there are still judges who are professional and courageous. However, the pressure is tremendous."

Ho also called on activists to keep speaking out against the crackdown and China's attempts to clinch power in the semi-autonomous territory, despite the risk of sentencing or arrest. 

"I know it’s difficult and I know many people will be scared. Yet, we have to protect this place and to protect the values that we treasure. Without these values, Hong Kong will no longer be the Hong Kong that we love," he said. 

DW's William Yang contributed to this story

lc/rt (AP, Reuters)

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