Nine veteran activists in Hong Kong are facing jail after they were convicted on Thursday of illegal parish fees for their role in organizing one of the largest democracy protests to swallow the city in 2019.
The defendants include some of the city’s most prominent democratic campaigns, many of which are non-violent advocates who have spent decades in vain for universal suffrage.
They are the latest group of democracy figures to be prosecuted as China oversees widespread violence against disagreement in the restless financial hub.
Among them are Martin Lee, an 82-year-old lawyer who was once elected by Beijing to help write Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, and Margaret Ng, a 73-year-old lawyer and former opposition lawmaker.
Media tycoon Jimmy Lai, who is currently in custody following his arrest under Beijing’s new national security law, was among those convicted.
Leung Kwok-hung, an opposition politician known for his sobriquet “Longhair” who has also been detained for national security charges, was also sent down.
Others are leading members of the Civil Human Front Front (CHRF), the coalition that organized a series of major meetings in 2019.
Seven were found guilty by the Hong Kong District Court on Thursday of having organized and deliberately participated in an unauthorized congregation.
Two others had previously pleaded guilty. They get up to five years in prison.
The group was accused of organizing an unauthorized assembly on August 18, 2019 – one of the largest in Hong Kong that year when people took to the streets for seven consecutive months demanding democracy and increased police responsibility.
The organizers claimed that 1.7 million people showed up – almost one in four Hong Kong residents – although it was difficult to independently verify the number.
It was easily one of the biggest gatherings that year, with dense crowds marching peacefully for hours under a sea of umbrellas and thunder skies.
Protests in Hong Kong can only proceed with the permission of authorities and rights groups have long criticized the use of unauthorized prosecution.
Prosecutors accused the group of defying police instructions that day and encouraging crowds to march across Hong Kong’s main island, disrupting traffic.
This trial caused controversy before it began.
The British lawyer David Perry, employed by the Hong Kong government to be the chief prosecutor, resigned after weakening criticism from both the British government and the British judicial bodies for his decision to take the job.
Since 2019, protests have been out-of-bounds with authorities either refusing permission for security reasons or later due to the pandemic.
The 2019 meetings often resulted in collisions between the riot police and a bunch of hardcore participants and posed the most coordinated challenge for China’s government since the former British colony handed over in 1997.
The movement eventually erupted under the combined weight of exhaustion, about 10,000 arrests and the emergence of the coronavirus pandemic.
Authorities have since released a wide-ranging action and Beijing has introduced a new security law that criminalizes much disagreement.
China and Hong Kong leaders say the law is needed to restore financial center stability.
Critics argue that Beijing has shredded the freedoms and autonomy it promised Hong Kong could maintain after the surrender.