A pro-democracy supporter waves a British flag outside a court in Hong Kong Friday, April 16, 2021. Seven of Hong Kong’s…
A pro-democracy supporter waves a British flag outside a court in Hong Kong, April 16, 2021.

HONG KONG - Hong Kong media tycoon Jimmy Lai was jailed for 12 months on Friday along with four other veteran democracy activists for helping to lead one of the city's biggest-ever protests.

Organizers say 1.7 million people -- almost one quarter of Hong Kong's population -- turned out for a huge rally that formed the backbone of demonstrations that wracked the city throughout 2019.

Lai was among nine of Hong Kong's most prominent democracy campaigners found guilty of organizing and participating in the rally.

Many of them have spent decades advocating non-violence in their ultimately fruitless campaign for universal suffrage.

The United States on Friday condemned the sentencing of the democracy activists, again accusing Beijing of denying Hong Kongers freedoms they were promised.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken called the charges against the activists "politically motivated" and demanded the release of "those detained or imprisoned for exercising their fundamental freedoms."

Lai, 73, was sentenced to 12 months in prison while four other campaigners were jailed for between eight and 18 months.

Among the other defendants were Martin Lee, 82, a respected barrister known as the "father of democracy" in Hong Kong, who was once chosen by Beijing to help write the city's mini-constitution.

They also include Margaret Ng, a 73-year-old barrister and former opposition lawmaker.

Lee and Ng were also given prison terms, but their sentences were suspended.

Lai was brought to the court from custody, where he was being held after arrest under Beijing's new national security law.

Seven of the defendants who had earlier pleaded not guilty submitted their mitigation on Friday morning.

"There is no right so precious to the people of Hong Kong as the freedom of expression and the freedom of peaceful assembly," said Ng, who discharged her legal team and gave her statement in person.

She added that she's prepared to stand with and stand up for the people who "in the last resort, had to give collective expression of their anguish and urge the government to respond."

"I stand the law's good servant but the people's first," said Ng, whose submission ended with a round of loud applause in courtroom.

Judge Amanda Woodcock earlier said in her verdict that the march had caused serious traffic disruption and the fact it was peaceful was no defense.

"I'm ready for the sentencing and I'm proud that I can walk with the people of HK in this road for democracy," former lawmaker Lee Cheuk-yan said outside court ahead of the hearing.

"We'll walk together through the storm even in darkness."

Lee was sentenced to 12 months in jail.

Lee and Jimmy Lai had pleaded guilty to taking part in another illegal assembly on Aug. 31, 2019.

The maximum penalty is five years in prison and the sentencings are also expected to be delivered on Friday afternoon.

The rallies in 2019 often descended into clashes between riot police and a knot of hardcore participants and posed the most concerted challenge to China's rule since the former British colony's 1997 handover.

Since then, authorities have unleashed a broad crackdown, with the imposition of a sweeping security law that criminalizes much dissent and passed a radical overhaul of the city's electoral system.