Dozens of people have gathered in Hong Kong for a seat in court ahead of the sentencing of media mogul Jimmy Lai and nine other pro-democracy politicians and activists after they were found guilty of taking part in unauthorised assemblies during enormous anti-government protests in 2019.
It marks the first time that Lai, one of Hong Kong’s most prominent supporters of democracy, who has been in jail since December after being denied bail in a separate national security case, will be sentenced.
About 100 people queued outside the court early on Friday to get a seat for the hearing.
“It was already very difficult to fight for democracy and freedom in the past. With the national security law, it’s even harder,” 19-year-old student Yan told the Reuters news agency, referring to the sweeping legislation imposed by China last year.
“We need to believe in our faith and wait for the time to come again,” said the student, who declined to give his full name because of the sensitivity of the subject.
Lai was found guilty in two separate trials earlier in April for illegal assemblies on August 18 and August 31 2019, respectively. The maximum possible punishment is five years in prison.
The repeated arrests of Lai and other pro-democracy politicians and activists have drawn criticism from Western governments and international rights groups, who have raised concerns over waning freedoms in the territory, whose people were guaranteed civic rights and freedoms unknown on the mainland when it was returned to Chinese rule in 1997.
In the August 18 case, District Court judge Amanda Woodcock found Lai guilty together with 82-year-old Martin Lee, who helped launch the city’s largest opposition Democratic Party in the 1990s and co-authored the territory’s mini constitution. He is often called the former British colony’s “father of democracy”.
As he entered the court on Friday, Lee said: “I feel completely relaxed, I’m ready to face my sentence.”
The other defendants, also found guilty, included prominent barrister Margaret Ng, who is 73 and veteran democrats Lee Cheuk-yan, Albert Ho, Leung Kwok-hung, Cyd Ho, Au Nok-hin and Leung Yiu-chung. The latter two had pleaded guilty.
The police had approved a rally at Victoria Park that day but denied permission for the group to march. Hundreds of thousands of people turned out for the event, filling the park and spilling onto the streets.
In the second trial, the same judge found Lai and Lee guilty together with a politician and academic, Yeung Sum. During those demonstrations, police fired tear gas and water cannon at the protesters, some of whom threw petrol bombs.
All three defendants previously pleaded guilty.
Lee posted on Facebook late on Thursday that he expected to go to jail but that his mind was “free as the ocean and the sky.”
The 2019 pro-democracy protests were triggered by the government’s plan for an extradition bill with the mainland and heightened by Beijing’s tightening squeeze on Hong Kong, creating the territory’s biggest crisis since the handover.
Beijing has since cemented its grip with the national security law, which punishes anything it deems as secession, subversion, terrorism or collusion with foreign forces with up to life in prison.
Supporters of the law say it has brought back stability to the territory. Critics say it has criminalised dissent.
“These prosecutions come at a time China is seeking to restore order in Hong Kong through its national security law and national security is being drilled into people at all levels now,” said Al Jazeera’s Adrian Brown who is outside the court.
On Wednesday, the territory’s government organised National Security Education Day for the first time with events for school children – including re-enacting police operations in metro trains, posing for photos in front of water-cannon trucks and handling weapons – and the police putting on a show of ceremonial goose-stepping.
Lai, the founder of the Apple Daily tabloid, has been a frequent visitor to Washington, DC, meeting officials including former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, to rally support for Hong Kong democracy. Beijing has labelled him a “traitor”.
Lai is scheduled for two more court mentions on Friday, in the national security trial where he is charged with collusion with a foreign country and a case related to the Apple Daily’s lease. Dozens of police swooped on the newspaper’s headquarters last August following Lai’s arrest.
Earlier this week, the tabloid published a hand-written letter Lai sent to his colleagues from prison, saying: “It is our responsibility as journalists to seek justice. As long as we are not blinded by unjust temptations, as long as we do not let evil get its way through us, we are fulfilling our responsibility.”
It is “time for us to stand tall,” he wrote.