Nine high-profile activists and pro-democracy figures have gone on trial in Hong Kong in one of the biggest court cases linked to the protest movement that paralysed the city for more than a year.
Among the defendants are Martin Lee, considered the father of the democracy movement in Hong Kong, media tycoon Jimmy Lai, veteran activist Lee Cheuk-yan, and Margaret Ng, a highly respected former legislator.
The group are charged with organising and participating in an unauthorised assembly in the early months of Hong Kong’s mass protests, which ended only when the outbreak of Covid-19 and a brutal crackdown by Beijing combined to push demonstrators off the streets. Both charges carry penalties of up to five years in jail.
It is the first time on trial for Lee, 83, and Ng, 73. Seven of the defendants have pleaded not guilty to all charges.
As proceedings began at the West Kowloon Magistrate’s court on Tuesday, one defendant, the former deputy convenor of the Civil Human Rights Front, Au Nok-hin, pleaded guilty to both charges and was convicted, according to local media. Former legislator Leung Yiu-chung pleaded guilty to joining the unlawful assembly and was convicted.
Lee Cheuk-yan and fellow veteran activist Leung Kwok-hung, known as Long Hair, shouted “object to political prosecution!” while entering their pleas.
Outside court on Tuesday morning Lee Cheuk-yan told local media the group was fighting for the right to assembly. Before the trial, supporters and several of the accused rallied outside the court. One banner read “Peaceful Assembly is Not a Crime; Shame on Political Prosecution.”
The charges related to a rally on 18 August 2019, when an estimated 1.7 million people – or more than one in five Hong Kongers – peacefully marched in defiance of police orders and torrential rain. The organisers, the Civil Human Rights Front, had been given permission to hold a rally in Victoria Park, but not for a march through the streets. The huge crowd filled the park, and spilled on to the streets, taking over major roads to walk to government offices a few kilometres away, protesting recent acts of police violence. In contrast to many protests before and after that day, it remained peaceful.
Eight months later, police arrested 15 people accused of organising the 18 August and two other rallies, drawing international rebuke, including a warning from the United Nations.
The government said in response it always respected and protected human rights and freedoms, but “these rights are not absolute”, and they must not unacceptably affect the enjoyment by others of their rights and liberties.
The charges are not of national security, although at least one of the accused, Lai, will face those at a later date and is in jail on remand. The case does not test the new laws brought in by Beijing with the blessing of Hong Kong’s government to crush dissent and opposition, but it has been controversial nonetheless.
Benjamin Yu is prosecuting the group, after British QC David Perry bowed to international outrage and withdrew from the role last month.
Speaking after the 15 were arrested last year, Martin Lee, reflecting on the thousands who had been detained over their participation in protests, said he was “proud and relieved to be listed as a defendant, after seeing so many brilliant young people arrested”.
Lee Cheuk-yan, who is also facing separate trials on other charges, told the Guardian authorities were using the pandemic as a “golden opportunity” to round up opposition figures, and labeled the arrests as “revenge and retaliation”.
“If we are found to be guilty of the [participation] charges, then 1.7 million people should be guilty of participation in an unauthorised assembly,” said Lee. “But that’s absurd … Are you going to prosecute 1.7 million people?”
The trial continues.