Five Hong Kong speech therapists were each sentenced to 19 months in prison Saturday after being found guilty on sedition charges for a series of published children’s books that were deemed anti-government.
On Wednesday the five were convicted of conspiracy to print, publish, distribute, display and/or reproduce seditious publications under a colonial-era law.
District Court Judge Kwok Wai-Kin said the books were aimed at “brainwashing” children and all were made with seditious intent.
Sheep and wolves
The books featured cartoons of sheep that were trying to repel wolves from their village. The publications referenced real events in recent years during Hong Kong’s political turmoil, including the mass pro-democracy protests in 2019 and how 12 dissidents attempted to escape to Taiwan in a speedboat before being intercepted by the Chinese coast guard.
After convicting the five, Judge Kwok implied that children reading the books would be told they are the sheep and the wolves that are trying to harm them are Chinese authorities.
Lorie Lai Man-ling, Melody Yeung, Sidney Ng, Samuel Chan and Fong Tsz-ho, all younger than 30, had pleaded not guilty in July. All five were members of the General Union of Hong Kong Speech Therapists, which has since closed.
In a two-month trial, prosecutors said the books had caused hatred toward the government and argued a sedition offense is like “treason.”
Defense lawyers had argued the animal characters were fictional and the allegations were too broad.
One of the defendants, Melody Yeung, spoke in court Saturday quoting U.S. Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. stating, “a riot is the language of the unheard,” and that she didn’t regret her contribution to the children’s books.
Kevin Yam, a Hong Kong lawyer and former activist now living in Australia, said the sentencing was harsh.
“Any prison sentence is harsh and absurd over a children’s comic book, let alone 19 months,” he told VOA.
District Judge Kwok, who is one of the hand-selected judges to preside over national security cases in Hong Kong, said there were four reasons for the length of the sentences. They include the high distribution and exposure of the books, the substantial period of time the conspiracy went on and the timing of when the publications were made available, which he said was while Hong Kong’s political and social conditions were extremely unstable.
Kwok also questioned whether the defendants depicted the whole truth through the stories, adding there was “no doubt” the sheep village refers to Hong Kong, and the wolf village referred to China.
“Can you explain why you didn’t tell the children that the sheep village was part of the land owned by the wolves, and that the land was taken away from the wolves through military invasion of the PRC (Peoples Republic of China) on the part of the shepherd?”
Hong Kong was under British control for 156 years until 1997, when the city was handed back to China.
National security law
Beijing imposed a national security law on Hong Kong to bring back stability following mass protests in the city three years ago. The legislation prohibits acts deemed as secession, subversion, foreign collusion and terrorism, carrying a maximum punishment of life imprisonment and has been used to target hundreds of dissidents.
Although sedition is not among the offenses listed under the security law, recent court judgments have enabled authorities to use its powers under a colonial-era sedition law to target suspects.
The speech therapists’ seditious charges were treated as a national security offense, meaning they have remained in custody and have been denied bail for 13 months awaiting the verdict.
After Saturday’s sentencing, one of the group’s lawyers estimated that the five may be allowed to leave prison in 31 days once deductions for time served were made.
The maximum sentence for sedition charges is two years.
Finn Lau, an activist in exile from Hong Kong now in Britain, said Kwok’s comments about brainwashing are false.
“The 19-month sentencing reflects the absurdity of Hong Kong’s judiciary system. The five speech therapists, on the other hand, show their courage and caring for future Hong Kong generations by standing up for justice. It is [the] Hong Kong and Beijing authorities which brainwash kids by distorting the city’s education system, not the cartoon illustrated books and speech therapists,” he told VOA.