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9 Hong Kong Pro-Democracy Activists Sentenced For 2019 Protests

Pro-democracy activist Lee Cheuk-yan, center, arrives at a court in Hong Kong Friday.  Seven of Hong Kong's leading pro-democracy advocates, including Lee, and pro-democracy media tycoon Jimmy Lai, were sentenced Friday for organizing a march during the 2019 anti-government protests.
Kin Cheung
Pro-democracy activist Lee Cheuk-yan, center, arrives at a court in Hong Kong Friday. Seven of Hong Kong's leading pro-democracy advocates, including Lee, and pro-democracy media tycoon Jimmy Lai, were sentenced Friday for organizing a march during the 2019 anti-government protests.

BEIJING — Nine veteran activists and lawmakers in Hong Kong have been sentenced to prison terms of up to 18 months because of their participation in anti-government protests nearly two years ago.

Media mogul Jimmy Lai received one year in prison, while prominent lawyers Margaret Ng and Martin Lee received suspended sentences of 12 and 11 months respectively, meaning if they are not convicted of another crime in the next two years, they will not have to spend time behind bars. The heaviest sentence of 18 months was meted out to Lee Cheuk-yan, an activist and former lawmaker.

The nine are the most prominent figures in Hong Kong to be sent to prison thus far as Beijing mounts several waves of arrests in the aftermath of widespread protests against its control of the region. They were convicted earlier this month of participating in two unauthorized but peaceful protests in August 2019.

Those protests were part of a larger political movement that began peacefully and attracted record numbers of marchers from all walks of life in Hong Kong. But demonstrations occasionally turned violent, after Beijing and Hong Kong's chief executive, Carrie Lam, refused to budge on more far-reaching demands for democratic reform, such as the ability to directly vote for Hong Kong's next leader.

Now, Beijing is enacting a series of new rules in Hong Kong to cement its hold and prevent future political opposition.

Since the protests ended early last year, China has expelled four opposition lawmakers from Hong Kong's legislature. Beijing then rammed through new rules that give it effective control over how the legislature and the region's chief executive are selected. Around 50 activists who pioneered a sweeping win for Hong Kong's pro-democratic parties and were strategizing to win bigger legislative elections have been arrested. A national security law, not yet a year old, has made political dissent effectively impossible.

"The law should give protection for rights, not take them away," said Margaret Ng, 73, a prominent lawyer, speaking before her sentencing.

Those sentenced are notable for not only their influence but their seniority. Eight out of the nine sentenced are over the age of 60, and all of them have, in various ways, shaped Hong Kong's political and legal landscape since it left British rule in 1997.

Also among those in court Friday were former lawmakers Au Nok-hin, Leung Kwok-hung, Leung Yiu-chung, Lee Cheuk-yan, Albert Ho and Cyd Ho.

More than 10,000 people have been arrested for their participation in 2019's protests. Most have been released on bail and have yet to be tried.

Three of those sentenced on Friday — Ng, Lee and lawmaker Ho — have been deemed by Chinese state media as part of the "Gang of Four," which Beijing sees as the primary orchestrators behind the mass demonstrations.

"What we're seeing is the Hong Kong legal system is becoming basically a Hong Kong control system," says Mark Simon, a longtime business associate of Lai's who lives in Taiwan.

Media tycoon Lai likely faces the longest stint in prison. He has yet to be tried for six additional charges — one for alleged fraud over the office lease for his media company, Apple Media, and two charges in relation to "colluding with foreign forces" under the national security law Beijing implemented last June. He could face life in prison for falling foul of those laws.

Lai, a frequent visitor to Washington, D.C., has met several times with senior American officials, including former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Lai has been in jail since last December after being arrested and denied bail for his national security charge.

"He's reading a lot," said Simon. "He's worried about his family's health every once in a while. But he's incredibly bored, and he would probably happy to be out of jail."

Earlier this month, Lai released a handwritten letter from prison: "It is precisely this that we need to love and cherish ourselves. The era is falling apart before us, and it is time for us to stand tall," it said.

Ho, the former lawmaker, and lawyer Martin Lee gave short comments outside the courtroom before being sentenced Friday amid shouts from both their supporters and pro-Beijing demonstrators. Ho was sentenced to one year.

"The most important thing is to continue to have hope, as long as there is hope, everything It will succeed," Lee said. He also told reporters outside the courtroom where he was sentenced that he had slept well the night before and was "at peace."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.

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