Media tycoon Jimmy Lai, the founder of pro-democracy tabloid Apple Daily, was sentenced to 14 months in prison on Friday as other prominent figures in the 2019 protest movement were also jailed.
Lai, 73, has been in detention since December after he was denied bail on charges of colluding with foreign forces under a powerful national security law imposed by Beijing. But he was sentenced to jail for the first time on Friday, for organizing and participating in two unauthorized assemblies during mass anti-government protests.
A fierce critic of Beijing, Lai was also hit with two more charges for allegedly helping a fugitive flee to Taiwan before he was captured at sea by Chinese police.
Four other activists were jailed from eight to 18 months over unauthorized assemblies. Another four senior figures, including Hong Kong’s ‘father of democracy’, 82-year-old Martin Lee, received suspended sentences.
China’s ruling Communist Party has launched a sweeping crackdown on the city’s pro-democracy activists after a year of fiery protests that led to violent clashes between protesters and police.
The sentences marked another blow to Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement, as most prominent activists have already been jailed under the national security law.
Most of the politicians in court on Friday are even seen as moderates by the younger generation of activists. Martin Lee, founder of the Democratic Party, Hong Kong’s largest opposition party, has denounced Hong Kong independence and lobbied for democratic reforms within Beijing’s “one country, two systems” formula.
But the older politicians are no longer tolerated by the Communist Party. During the 2019 protest movement, Chinese state media labelled four leading pro-democracy figures, including Lee and Lai, as a “gang of four” that incited unrest.
Several defendants, among them well-respected lawyers and labor activists, remained defiant before they were sentenced.
“The law should give protection to rights, not take them away, especially in Hong Kong, where structural democracy is still absent,” 73-year-old lawyer and former lawmaker Margaret Ng said in a speech in court. “I stand the law’s good servant but the people’s first. For the law must serve the people, not the people the law.”
Lee called on Hong Kong people to stay hopeful before entering the court.
“As long as we have hope, anything can be achieved,” he told reporters.
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