Billionaire media mogul and pro-democracy activist Jimmy Lai was given another jail term on Monday after a Hong Kong judge found him guilty of taking part in an unauthorized assembly 18 months ago.
Lai was sentenced to 13 months in jail for “incitement to knowingly take part in an unauthorised assembly” during Hong Kong’s annual Tiananmen Square candlelight vigil in June 2020.
Chow Hang-tung, a human rights lawyer and Gwyneth Ho, a former journalist, were also jailed for 12-months and six months respectively for their roles at the event.
The Tiananmen Square massacre took place on June 4 1989, in Beijing, as China’s People’s Liberation Army violently cracked down on pro-democracy protesters, leaving unknown numbers killed.
Hong Kong residents have since commemorated the event, but authorities have prohibited the rally in the last two years because of the COVID19 pandemic.
Thousands of peaceful protesters defied the ban in 2020, lit candles and sang peacefully at Hong Kong’s Victoria Park as the evening finished without any major incidents.
Dozens of pro-democracy activists were eventually charged for their involvement at the demonstration, with eight given jail terms on Monday at Hong Kong's District Court for organizing, participating or inciting others to attend the rally.
Veteran pro-democracy activist Lee Cheuk-Yan, who is already serving jail time for similar convictions, received a 14-month jail sentence. Lee was the Chairman of the now-defunct Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China group and the organizer of the vigil. Three former Alliance members, Richard Tsoi, Leung Yiu-chung and Simon Leung Kam-wai were also jailed for their roles in the assembly, ranging between nine and 12 months. Former lawmaker Wu Chi-wai, was given an additional four months and two weeks to the current jail term he is serving. All defendants will serve their sentences concurrently.
Judge Amanda Woodcock said the rally risked another public threat amid the ongoing pandemic, and that deterrent sentences were needed, local media reported.
But Eric Yan-ho Lai, a law analyst and fellow at the Georgetown University Law School in Washington D.C., told VOA the sentencing was "harsh."
"It reflects the court continues to disproportionately punish peaceful activists. The sentencing also reflects that the court undermines the importance of balancing right exercising and public health, and ignores the UN Special Rapporteur's call for respecting free assemblies during COVID," Lai said.
The analyst added how the sentencing indicates the annual vigil is now a crime in Hong Kong and future commemorations are "highly unlikely."
"Free anti-government speeches and assemblies are in no way legal and tolerable by the authorities now,” he added.
For his mitigation, Lai hand-wrote his own, which was read by his defence counsel. He denied he had joined the vigil and had only lit a candle.
“If commemorating those who died because of injustice is a crime, then inflict on me that crime and let me suffer the punishment of this crime, so I may share the burden and glory of those young men and women who shed blood on June 4 to proclaim truth, justice and goodness,” part of his mitigation read.
The 74-year-old has been in jail since December last year and is now serving a 20-month term for taking part in several unauthorized rallies in 2019. He is also facing two charges under the national security law and faces life in prison.
Mark Simon, Lai’s former top aide and former group director for Apple Daily’s parent company Next Digital, told VOA the judgments are targeting individuals rather than violations of the law.
“These harsh sentences are reflective not of a justice system, but of a coordinated effort of repression.”
Chow, a barrister in Hong Kong since 2016 and the former vice-chair of the Hong Kong Alliance, delivered her own mitigation on Monday.
“Let us not delude ourselves that this is all about COVID-19 and that the criminalization of the vigil is only an exceptional measure at an exceptional time. What happened here is instead one step in the systemic erasure of history, both of the Tiananmen Massacre and Hong Kong’s own history of civic resistance.”
Chow, who also is facing an outstanding charge under the security law, told VOA in July, "The absurdity of all is crazy. We have done nothing wrong, so we shouldn’t feel down for what we’ve done.”
Hong Kong political activist Glacier Chung Ching Kwong said the sentencing is significant and bemoaned the loss of a “bright and warm-hearted human rights lawyer.”
Since Beijing imposed a strict national security law upon Hong Kong last June following the widespread pro-democracy protests in 2019, a crackdown has ensued within the semi-autonomous city. The law prohibits secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces, and its details can be widely interpreted by authorities.
At least 150 people have since been arrested under the security law, Bloomberg has reported. Apple Daily, the Hong Kong pro-democracy newspaper Jimmy Lai founded in 1995, was forced to cease operations earlier this year as Lai and his executives were charged for violating the legislation. And the Hong Kong Alliance organization is also one of the dozens of civil society groups to have also folded because of the law.
Political analyst Joseph Cheng, formerly of Hong Kong but now residing in New Zealand, also believes Monday’s sentencing indicates how Hong Kong has lost its unique autonomy.
“The Hong Kong Alliance and its annual June 4 candlelight vigil are symbols of the one country, two systems model; they’re the canary in the mine pit. The canary is now gone; and many Hong Kong people now believe that the one country, two systems model is dead too,” he told VOA.
“In the foreseeable future, I don’t think anyone or any organizations can organize the June 4 memorial activities. Unlawful assemblies which are peaceful used to attract warnings…now the guilty parties are usually given prison terms of a few months. Naturally, such sentences are unnecessarily harsh,” he added.