Hong Kong: Media mogul Jimmy Lai found guilty over 2019 mass protests

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Hong Kong media tycoon Jimmy Lai and six former lawmakers have been found guilty of unauthorized assembly, in the latest blow to the city’s pro-democracy movement.

The defendants – including an 82-year-old – were convicted for their involvement in the mass 2019 protests. All seven had pleaded not guilty but now face time in prison. After waves of pro-democracy protests, Beijing is increasingly adding pressure on the city’s rights and freedoms.

China had earlier this week passed sweeping changes to Hong Kong’s electoral rules which will allow prospective MPs to first be vetted by a pro-Beijing committee. Two other activists had earlier already pleaded guilty and face up to five years in jail. The sentencing for the group will be delivered at a later date.

Martin Lee and Albert Ho
Martin Lee and Albert Ho outside of court ahead of the verdict

The seven are accused of participating in an unauthorized assembly on 12 and 18 August 2019, when Hong Kong was embroiled in months of anti-government protests. They include Martin Lee, an 82-year-old barrister who is known as the “father of Hong Kong democracy”, and Leung Kwok-hung, an activist known by his moniker “Long Hair”.

The defense team say that freedom of assembly is protected under Hong Kong’s constitution, and that authorities had approved a demonstration which then grew into the unauthorized march. The prosecution argued that freedom of assembly – while granted in the constitution – was not absolute in Hong Kong.

During the handing down of the verdict on Thursday, a small group of supporters had gathered outside the court with banners calling the trial “Political Persecution”.

Who is Jimmy Lai?

Mr Lai is one of the most prominent supporters of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement – and faces separate charges under Beijing’s national security law. Estimated to be worth more than $1bn (£766m), he made his initial fortune in the clothing industry and later ventured into media and founded Next Digital.

Next Digital publishes Apple Daily, a well-read tabloid which is frequently critical of Hong Kong and mainland Chinese leadership. In a local media landscape increasingly fearful of Beijing, Mr Lai is a persistent thorn for China – both through his publications and writing.

This photo taken on February 7, 2011 shows Hong Kong media tycoon Jimmy Lai outside his company's headquarters in Hong Kong. Lai,
Mr Lai outside his company’s headquarters in 2011

It has seen him become a hero for many residents in Hong Kong but on the mainland he is viewed as a traitor who threatens Chinese national security. Interviewed by the BBC before his arrest earlier in December, he said he would not give in to intimidation.

“If they can induce fear in you, that’s the cheapest way to control you and the most effective way and they know it. The only way to defeat the way of intimidation is to face up to fear and don’t let it frighten you.” The arrests of Mr Lai and the other pro-democracy figures have been condemned by Western governments.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken accused China of politically motivated prosecutions to “severely undermine the rights and freedoms of people in Hong” as well as “pressure on judicial independence and academic and press freedoms”.

What’s the background to all this?

Britain handed back Hong Kong to China in 1997, and the Basic Law was created under the handover agreement under the “one country, two systems” principle.

This is supposed to protect certain freedoms for Hong Kong: freedom of assembly and speech, an independent judiciary and some democratic rights – freedoms that no other part of mainland China has. But fears that this model was being eroded led to huge pro-democracy protests in 2019.

Some protests turned violent and in 2020, China introduced a controversial national security law in the territory, criminalizing secession, subversion and collusion with foreign forces with the maximum sentence life in prison. Beijing said the law would target “sedition” and bring stability. Since the law has been enacted in June, around 100 people have been arrested, including Mr Lai.

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