HONG KONG - A court in Hong Kong on Thursday found seven veteran pro-democracy activists -- including 82-year-old Democratic Party founder Martin Lee -- guilty of charges related to "illegal assembly" in connection with a mass march of around 1.7 million people in 2019.
The District Court on Thursday Lee, media magnate Jimmy Lai, and former lawmakers Margaret Ng, Cyd Ho, Lee Cheuk-yan, Albert Ho, and Leung Kwok-hung of "organizing and taking part in an illegal assembly" in connection with a march from Victoria Park to the Central business district on Aug. 18, 2019.
All had denied the charges.
The march, which began with a police-authorized rally in Victoria Park to protest plans to allow the extradition of alleged criminal suspects to mainland China, was one of the biggest mass protests of the movement.
Former Civic Party lawmaker Au Nok-hin had earlier pleaded guilty to the same charges, while former lawmaker Leung Yiu-chung pleaded guilty to taking part in an illegal assembly.
Judge Amanda Woodcock found that while the march's organizers, the Civil Human Rights Front, were permitted by police to hold a rally at Victoria Park that day, the subsequent march to Central was unauthorized by police.
"This intention was vocalised repeatedly and publicly days before the public meeting ... The truth is, it was a planned unauthorised assembly," she said, rejecting the defense argument that the defendants had only attended to help disperse the crowds after the rally.
Six of the defendants including Ng and Lee were released on bail under a travel ban, while Leung, Lai, and Au remained behind bars in connection with other cases.
They will be sentenced after a mitigation hearing on April 16.
Cyd Ho, Margaret Ng, and Lee Cheuk-yan emerged from the court after being released on bail to thunderous applause from supporters chanting "Go Hong Kong! Go Hong Kong!"
'Freedom is shrinking in Hong Kong'
Ho said the case was an indication that "freedom is shrinking in Hong Kong," while Lee Cheuk-yan told reporters that those who took part in the march had exercised their right to protest in a peaceful manner on Aug. 18, 2019.
"If I get sentenced to jail, this would be a matter of great pride, and the crowning glory of my life's work," Lee Cheuk-yan told reporters. "Because I will be going to jail for standing by the people of Hong Kong."
"I would like to thank and pay my respects to all of the beautiful people of Hong Kong who marched alongside us, who marched peacefully to exercise our rights," he said. "We promise that we will carry on marching with you for our rights."
The court hearing was attended by diplomats from the European Union, Sweden, and New Zealand, as well as outspoken Catholic bishop emeritus Cardinal Joseph Zen.
Chung Kim-wah, deputy chief executive of the Public Opinion Research Institute (PORI), said there has been a sea change in the way courts in Hong Kong are handling public order cases since 2019.
"Previously, it would have been much harder to get a conviction if the assembly merely expressed some political demands, and there was no violence involved," Chung told RFA.
"Now, when Hong Kong courts deal with these cases, they tend to accept the government's view of that these protests should be suppressed," he said. "This is a crucial change from the common law system we had in the past."
Pro-democracy camp convener Figo Chan said the case was part of a political campaign to remove pro-democracy politicians from public life.
"The Hong Kong authorities are going after the democrats, regardless of whether protests are peaceful or not," Chan told reporters. "The people of Hong Kong are going to lose any opportunity to speak out."
Authorities silence critics
Sophie Richardson, China director of the New York-based group Human Rights Watch (HRW), said she first met Martin Lee, Margaret Ng, and Lee Cheuk-yan in 1996.
"These are people who could have spent their lives doing something else, but they've dedicated themselves to working for human rights, and especially democracy, for all #HongKong people," Richardson said via her Twitter account.
"The law deployed today to 'convict' them is designed to make it easy for authorities to silence critics," she wrote, adding that United National human rights experts had long flagged the Public Order Ordinance as a problem.
"So those found 'guilty' today had only committed the crime of being pro-democracy. That #HongKong police and courts even indulged this case is a powerful indictment of them, not of the defendants," Richardson wrote.
Benedict Rogers, who heads the U.K.-based rights group Hong Kong Watch, told Euronews that the verdict was a huge blow to Hong Kong activism.
"These are respected, internationally renowned, moderate democrats ... mainstream politicians in Hong Kong," Rogers said in comments published on his group's website. "The opposition in Hong Kong is now very significantly constrained."