Hong Kong appeal court grants partial victory to democracy protest figureheads

People gather at Victoria Square in Hong Kong on 18 August 2019 during massive protests against China's extradition law
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Hong Kong’s appeals court cleared seven prominent democracy figures on Monday 14 August. A trial had previously convicted them of the charge of organising a massive rally in 2019. The rally was part of protests against China’s National Security Law that took place in 2019 and 2020.

‘Not realistic evidence’

Courts convicted the group in 2021 for organising and taking part in an unauthorised assembly.

The group included Jimmy Lai, founder of now-defunct Apple Daily. The others included veteran unionist Lee Cheuk-yan, prominent leftist Leung Kwok-hung, rights lawyer Albert Ho, former lawmaker Cyd Ho, Civic Party founder Margaret Ng, and Democratic Party founder Martin Lee.

On 14 August, the appeals court struck down the conviction for organising the rally. However, it upheld another – for participating in the 18 August 2019 demonstration. It was one of the largest gatherings during the height of democracy protests, drawing an estimated 1.7 million people.

According to the ruling, the suggestion that the seven were at the front of the procession was “not a realistic or suitable substitute for evidence that they were involved in its organisation”.

Hong Kong judges enabling crackdown on dissent

The Committee for Freedom in Hong Kong Foundation reacted to the news. President of the foundation Mark Clifford said:

Since the introduction of a vague and sweeping National Security Law three years ago, Hong Kong authorities have distorted laws and legal principles to punish anyone who speaks out against the government. Too often, Hong Kong judges have enabled this criminalisation of dissent.

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The Committee to Protect Journalists also welcomed the news, and said that courts shouldn’t have convicted the seven in the first place:

However, Clifford pointed out that the group still remains imprisoned:

That’s because the appeals court upheld their participation conviction. It said the seven “each knew they had embarked on an activity which was unauthorised”.

Blow to peaceful assembly

Many saw the convictions in 2021 as a blow to the right to peaceful assembly in the city. They came as Beijing imposed its National Security Law, which effectively silenced dissent. However, the 18 August protest was peaceful. During the initial trial, police told the court they didn’t observe violence or make any arrests.

Ng told reporters they would study the judgement before deciding their next move. The court granted three among the seven – Ng, Lee, and Ho – suspended sentences. Meanwhile, the other four had already finished serving their terms, which were between eight and 18 months.

However, Lai, Cheuk-yan, Kwok-hung, and Ho are still in remand over three separate cases in which they are accused of national security crimes.

So far, police have arrested 260 people under China‘s national security law. 79 of them were convicted or are awaiting sentencing in Hong Kong.

Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse

Featured image South China Morning Post/YouTube

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