Hong Kong’s already-jailed media tycoon Jimmy Lai was among three prominent democracy activists convicted on Thursday for taking part in a banned gathering in June 2020 to remember the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown.
Hong Kong has a long history of commemorating June 4 -- it’s traditionally a day when the city’s freedoms are on show to the world -- but the Tiananmen vigil has been banned since Beijing intensified its crackdown in the city after 2019's protests, with the Hong Kong Police dubiously citing the pandemic.
Lai, who turned 74-years-old on Wednesday, was found guilty on Thursday of inciting people to join the Tiananmen gathering. Rights lawyer Chow Hang-tung and former journalist Gwyneth Ho were also convicted of taking part in the ‘unauthorized assembly’ at Victoria Park.
Judge Amanda Woodcock said that prosecutors were able to prove that Lai and Chow encouraged others to join the vigil, citing Chow’s call for people to “light candles." Sentencing is on Dec. 13.
Lai, the founder of now-closed pro-democracy paper Apple Daily, is currently in prison serving out sentences for other charges related to his activism. He’s also still waiting to hear charges against him under the controversial national security law.
Thursday's ruling is another worrying sign that Hong Kong’s once vibrant civil society and independent legal system is heading down a more autocratic path, in line with mainland China.
In a statement, Amnesty International said: “The Hong Kong government has once again flouted international law by convicting activists simply for their involvement in a peaceful, socially distanced vigil for those killed by Chinese troops on 4 June 1989. The authorities have deemed the vigil ‘unlawful’ because the police did not approve it, but peaceful assembly does not need government approval. These convictions merely underline the pattern of the Hong Kong authorities’ extreme efforts to exploit the law to press multiple trumped-up charges against prominent activists."
The group added, “People should be free to peacefully mourn and remember the victims of the Tiananmen crackdown – and to prosecute people for doing so is an egregious attack on the rights to freedom of expression and assembly.”
With many of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy politicians in jail or in exile, for the first time in history the city is holding a Legislative Council election without opposition next Sunday, Dec. 19. It's also the first city-wide poll under Beijing's new electoral system to ensure only Chinese 'patriots' run Hong Kong.
In March, it passed legislation to reduce pro-democracy representation in the legislature, introducing a pro-Beijing vetting panel to screen candidates and expanding the ratio of pro-Beijing seats. This election has been postponed twice -- it was originally scheduled for September 2020 --- with officials citing the pandemic.
Meanwhile Chinese and Hong Kong authorities have been trying to deflect concerns about a potential record-low voter turnout. Earlier this month, an online survey found that 40% of 6,400 people polled said they "most likely" or "absolutely" would not be casting a ballot on election day.
Seemingly in response, Hong Kong Leader Carrie Lam told the Chinese tabloid the Global Times that a low turnout rate "would not mean anything," musing that it could mean that the public was satisfied with the government and didn't need to vote.
Nevertheless, the potential turnout was sensitive enough that the Hong Kong government issued a threat to The Wall Street Journal after it published an editorial about the upcoming election. The editorial commented that 'not voting' is probably one of the remaining forms of protests left in the city. However, it is against the law to incite others to boycott the election or cast blank ballots.
Before the election was delayed, democrats held an unofficial primary poll to boost their chances of gaining a majority in the chamber. Forty-seven political figures involved in the election were arrested and charged with subversion under the security law. Since then, many other democratic politicians have quit or been disqualified over oath-taking requirements.
The pro-democracy camp had seen a surge in support during the 2019 protests, enjoying landslide wins in record turnout during the District Council election in November that year.