Two former Hong Kong legislators have pleaded guilty to charges of organizing or participating in one of the biggest pro-democracy protests in the Chinese-controlled city in 2019. The two were among nine, including veteran pro-democracy politician Martin Lee and media tycoon Jimmy Lai, whose trials got under way on Tuesday in the semi-autonomous territory.
The nine were arrested with several others in April last year in what was seen as a move to crack down on dissent. The two who pleaded guilty were Au Nok-hin and Leung Yiu-chung, both former members of the Hong Kong legislature. Au had been charged with organizing and participating in an illegal assembly and Leung was charged with participating in an illegal assembly. The charges stemmed from a protest on August 18, 2019, which was estimated to have drawn more than one million people, despite heavy rain.
Organizers described it as the second-largest protest of that year, with an estimated 1.7 million people marching peacefully for hours, mostly wearing black and carrying umbrellas to protect them from the rain. The 2019 protests, fueled by a perception Beijing was curbing the wide-ranging freedoms promised to the former British colony on its return to Chinese rule in 1997, plunged Hong Kong into its biggest political crisis since the handover. Leung and Au will hear the verdict on March 22.
‘Rule by fear’
The other seven pleaded not guilty. They included Lee, the 82-year-old veteran of Hong Kong’s democracy movement, and Jimmy Lai, a newspaper publisher who is being held without bail under the National Security Law that China imposed on the territory in June last year.
Veteran activists Lee Cheuk-yan, and Leung Kwok-hung, known as Long Hair, shouted “Object to political prosecution!” when they made the not-guilty plea. The nine each face as many as five years in jail if convicted. Ahead of the trial, supporters and several of the accused rallied outside the court. One banner read “Peaceful Assembly is Not a Crime; Shame on Political Prosecution.”
Lee Cheuk-yan said that the law had become an instrument of political suppression. “It is very sad to witness the deterioration of the rule of law in Hong Kong into a rule by fear,” he said. Protests in Hong Kong can only proceed with the permission of authorities, although rights groups have long criticized the use of prosecutions in relation to unauthorized assembly.
Since 2019, protests have been all but outlawed with authorities either refusing permission on security grounds or later because of the pandemic. The national security law, punishing anything Beijing deems secession, subversion, terrorism or collusion with foreign forces with up to life in prison, has also curbed political activity. Since the introduction of the law, the government has disqualified opposition politicians and jailed activists, while authorities have banned slogans, songs and pro-democracy political activity in schools.