Hong Kong’s Lai and Other Top Activists Sentenced Amid Crackdown

Hong Kong media tycoon and pro-democracy activist Jimmy Lai was sentenced Friday to a total of 14 months in prison for attending unauthorized protests and charged with more national security offenses as authorities pursue a deluge of cases against the city’s most high-profile dissidents.

Lai, 73, and the founder of the pro-democracy Apple Daily newspaper, was sentenced alongside other prominent activists for participating in two protests not approved by police in August 2019, at the height of the city’s unrest.

Hong Kong’s Lai and Other Top Activists Sentenced Amid Crackdown

For one of these protests, Hong Kong’s “father of democracy” Martin Lee, 82, was handed a suspended sentence in the same case, as were senior lawyers and former lawmakers Margaret Ng, 73, and Albert Ho, 69, in recognition of their advanced ages and contributions to society, District Court Judge Amanda Woodcock said.

“The wrongful prosecution, conviction and sentencing of these activists underlines the Hong Kong government’s intention to eliminate all political opposition in the city,” Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific regional director Yamini Mishra said in a statement Friday.

Hong Kong’s Lai and Other Top Activists Sentenced Amid Crackdown

‘Effective Intimidation’

Earlier in the day, Lai was charged with two additional crimes under the city’s sweeping national security law -- another count of foreign collusion, and for trying to help a local activist flee to Taiwan.

The developments came on a day when Lai, a well-known critic of Beijing, faced four separate court appearances. He had two sentencings, a brief hearing on his national security law offenses and also attended a separate hearing for a fraud case related to his company’s office space.

“Four cases in one day? Come on, that’s ridiculous,” said Mark Simon, Lai’s long-time deputy. “This is about showing their ability to crush the guy they think is the most powerful man in the movement. They’re sending a message to everyone.”

And yet Lai is only the most prominent among many Hong Kong democracy campaigners facing multiple charges for challenging Beijing’s tightening grip over the financial hub following sometimes-violent protests in 2019. While Hong Kong’s government maintains it’s pursuing cases with no political motivations, lawyers and activists say the flood of legal proceedings is designed to deter others from organizing demonstrations and criticizing Beijing.

“This is not potential but actual, effective intimidation,” said Jerome Cohen, founder of the U.S.-Asia Law Institute at the New York University School of Law and one of the U.S.’s foremost legal experts on China. “Piling on of prosecutions against many of Hong Kong’s most distinguished liberal reformers not only removes them from the active scene but also deters and suffocates others.”

Hong Kong’s Department of Justice did not respond to a request for comment.

The sentencing drew attention in the U.S., where House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was among members of Congress criticizing the moves on Friday morning, calling them “another sign of Beijing’s assault on the rule of law.”

In sentencing, Judge Woodcock said she took into account the violence of previous 2019 protests and the public disruption that occurred on both days in August 2019 when she handed down jail time for all other defendants.

Also sentenced Friday were former lawmakers Lee Cheuk-yan, Au Nok-hin and Cyd Ho, as well as activist Leung “Long Hair” Kwok-hung, who received prison terms ranging from eight to 18 months for the same protest in August as Martin Lee.

Hong Kong’s Lai and Other Top Activists Sentenced Amid Crackdown

Besides Lai, numerous other figures are facing multiple cases as the authorities try to ensure the unrest of 2019 never happens again. Activists also contend the jailing of so many campaigners and lawmakers, including 47 arrested under the national security law for holding a democratic primary last summer, is to ensure the opposition camp never wins another election. The pro-democracy bloc swept polls for district offices, the lowest level of government, after the protests.

One of them facing multiple cases is Ho -- the lawyer, human rights activist and former chairman of the city’s opposition Democratic Party who was sentenced on Friday. He faces a total of four separate cases for attending protests.

“The mainland government is now certainly exercising what they call ‘comprehensive control’ over Hong Kong,” Ho said ahead of the sentencing. “They want to not only intimidate, they want to completely silence the leading dissidents by sending them to prison.”

​Another is Joshua Wong, who led demonstrations in 2014 and was the subject of the Netflix documentary “Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower.” He has faced four separate cases. Wong was already in jail serving a sentence for leading a protest outside police headquarters in 2019 when he was rearrested and charged with the group of 47.

Hong Kong’s Lai and Other Top Activists Sentenced Amid Crackdown

All were charged with subversion under the security law for a plan to win Legislative Council elections, vote down the city’s budget, then try and force the resignation of Hong Kong’s chief executive -- a maneuver that is legal under the city’s mini constitution.

That election was delayed by a year and is now slated for December, providing Beijing enough time to overhaul the city’s electoral system in a way that allows authorities to veto any opposition candidate.

‘We Will Prevail’

The financial pressure on the defendants resulting from their legal battles -- particularly for full-time politicians who have lost their positions and salaries -- can be immense.

Lam Cheuk-ting, a senior figure in the Democratic Party, faces five criminal cases -- including national security charges over the primary -- in addition to several civil suits. He ended up selling his apartment in part to pay legal fees.

Hong Kong’s Lai and Other Top Activists Sentenced Amid Crackdown

“I may be one of the politicians facing the most cases,” Lam said in a previous interview. “The legal cost is a heavy burden for me.” Political parties have helped with expenses, and there have been some crowd-funding efforts. Still, prosecutors have repeatedly sought -- and succeeded -- to keep many of the city’s prominent activists in jail while they pile on charges.

Lee Cheuk-yan, who received a 14-month sentence in two cases Friday, still faces two separate other legal cases, and has also sold his apartment.

“I feel very peaceful because we are proud of what we have done,” Lee said as he walked into the courtroom surrounded by supporters ahead of Friday’s proceedings. “Though I have two sentencings today and two more trials to come I believe that if we walk together in Hong Kong for freedom and democracy, we will prevail.”

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