Hong Kong, China

Hong Kong media tycoon Jimmy Lai was sentenced to 14 months in prison while nine other activists received jail time or suspended sentences on Friday for taking part in unauthorised assemblies during mass pro-democracy protests in 2019.

Senior barrister Martin Lee, who helped launch the city's largest opposition Democratic Party in the 1990s and is often called the former British colony's "father of democracy", was given an 11-month suspended sentence. 

China Hong Kong Jimmy Lai

Media mogul Jimmy Lai, founder of 'Apple Daily', leaves the Court of Final Appeal by prison van in Hong Kong, China, on 9th February. PICTURE: Reuters/Tyrone Siu/File photo.

It was the first time that Lai, one of Hong Kong's most prominent democratic activists, who has been in jail since December after being denied bail in a separate national security trial, received a prison sentence.

Lai was found guilty in two separate trials for unauthorised assemblies on 18th Augus and 31st August, 2019, respectively. 

He received a 15-month sentence for the first, reduced by three months in mitigation, and an eight-month sentence for the second, of which he will serve two.

District Court Judge Amanda Woodcock said even though the 18th August assembly was peaceful there was a "latent risk of possible violence" and that a deterrent sentence and "immediate imprisonment" was appropriate.

Lai's repeated arrests have drawn criticism from Western governments and international rights groups, who raised concerns over waning freedoms in the global financial hub, including freedom of speech and assembly.

"The wrongful prosecution, conviction and sentencing of these activists underlines the...government’s intention to eliminate all political opposition," Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific Regional Director Yamini Mishra said.

The other defendants in the 18th August case, also found guilty, included prominent barrister Margaret Ng and veteran democrats Lee Cheuk-yan, Albert Ho, Leung Kwok-hung, Cyd Ho, Au Nok-hin and Leung Yiu-chung. 

They received sentences of up to 18 months. Ng, Leung Yiu-chung and Albert Ho were given suspended sentences.

In her mitigation speech, Ng said the law must not only be defended in courts or the legislature, but also in the streets.

"When the people, in the last resort, had to give collective expression to their anguish and urge the government to respond, protected only by their expectation that the government will respect their rights, I must be prepared to stand with them, stand by them and stand up for them," she said. 

In the second trial, Lai and Lee Cheuk-yan were found guilty together with Yeung Sum, who received a suspended sentence. All three had pleaded guilty.

The 2019 pro-democracy protests were spurred by Beijing's tightening squeeze on wide-ranging freedoms promised to Hong Kong upon its return to Chinese rule in 1997, and plunged the semi-autonomous city into its biggest crisis since the handover.

Beijing has since consolidated its authoritarian grip on Hong Kong by imposing a sweeping national security law, punishing 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 restored stability.

Lai, founder of the Apple Daily tabloid, has been a frequent visitor to Washington, meeting officials such as former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, to rally support for Hong Kong democracy, prompting Beijing to label him a "traitor".

Lai attended two other court mentions on Friday, in the ongoing trial where he is charged with collusion with a foreign country and a fraud case related to the lease of the building which houses Apple Daily.

Prosecutors said he will face two additional charges of conspiracy to collude with foreign forces and conspiracy to obstruct the course of justice.

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 ... do not let evil get its way through us, we are fulfilling our responsibility."

It is "time for us to stand tall," he wrote.

Friday's sentencings follow that of Joshua Wong, one of Hong Kong’s most prominent democracy activists, who earlier this month was sentenced to four months in jail on Tuesday for unauthorised assembly and violating an anti-mask law. Wong, 24, had pleaded guilty to both charges, including taking part in and using a facial covering at an unauthorised assembly in October, 2019, during the height of anti-government protests, the court heard. 

The United States condemned the sentencing of Lai and other pro-democracy activists on what it called "politically motivated charges" in comments on Friday.

"Beijing and Hong Kong authorities are targeting Hong Kongers for doing nothing more than exercising protected rights and fundamental freedoms, including freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of speech," US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement.

"Today’s sentences are yet another example of how [China] and Hong Kong authorities undermine protected rights and fundamental freedoms guaranteed by the Basic Law and the Sino-British Joint Declaration in an effort to eliminate all forms of dissent," he added.

Meanwhile, British foreign minister Dominic Raab urged Hong Kong to cease the prosecution of supporters of democracy in the former British colony.

"The Hong Kong authorities' decision to target leading pro-democracy figures for prosecution is unacceptable and must stop," Raab said in a statement.

"The right to peaceful protest is fundamental to Hong Kong's way of life - protected in both the Joint Declaration and the Basic Law - and it should be upheld," he added.

- Additional reporting by PAK YIU and SHARON TAM, TIM AHMANN in Washington DC, US, and KATE HOLTON in London, UK.