BEIJING — Nine veteran activists and lawmakers in Hong Kong have been sentenced to prison terms of up to 18 months because of their participation in anti-government protests nearly two years ago.
Media mogul Jimmy Lai received one year in prison, while prominent lawyers Margaret Ng and Martin Lee received suspended sentences of 12 and 11 months respectively, meaning if they are not convicted of another crime in the next two years, they will not have to spend time behind bars. The heaviest sentence of 18 months was meted out to Lee Cheuk-yan, an activist and former lawmaker.
The nine are the most prominent figures in Hong Kong to be sent to prison thus far as Beijing mounts several waves of arrests in the aftermath of widespread protests against its control of the region. They were convicted earlier this month of participating in two unauthorized but peaceful protests in August 2019.
Those protests were part of a larger political movement that began peacefully and attracted record numbers of marchers from all walks of life in Hong Kong. But demonstrations occasionally turned violent, after Beijing and Hong Kong's chief executive, Carrie Lam, refused to budge on more far-reaching demands for democratic reform, such as the ability to directly vote for Hong Kong's next leader.
Now, Beijing is enacting a series of new rules in Hong Kong to cement its hold and prevent future political opposition.
Since the protests ended early last year, China has expelled four opposition lawmakers from Hong Kong's legislature. Beijing then rammed through new rules that give it effective control over how the legislature and the region's chief executive are selected. Around 50 activists who pioneered a sweeping win for Hong Kong's pro-democratic parties and were strategizing to win bigger legislative elections have been arrested. A national security law, not yet a year old, has made political dissent effectively impossible.
"The law should give protection for rights, not take them away," said Margaret Ng, 73, a prominent lawyer, speaking before her sentencing.
Those sentenced are notable for not only their influence but their seniority. Eight out of the nine sentenced are over the age of 60, and all of them have, in various ways, shaped Hong Kong's political and legal landscape since it left British rule in 1997.
Also among those in court Friday were former lawmakers Au Nok-hin, Leung Kwok-hung, Leung Yiu-chung, Lee Cheuk-yan, Albert Ho and Cyd Ho.
More than 10,000 people have been arrested for their participation in 2019's protests. Most have been released on bail and have yet to be tried.
Three of those sentenced on Friday — Ng, Lee and lawmaker Ho — have been deemed by Chinese state media as part of the "Gang of Four," which Beijing sees as the primary orchestrators behind the mass demonstrations.
"What we're seeing is the Hong Kong legal system is becoming basically a Hong Kong control system," says Mark Simon, a longtime business associate of Lai's who lives in Taiwan.
Media tycoon Lai likely faces the longest stint in prison. He has yet to be tried for six additional charges — one for alleged fraud over the office lease for his media company, Apple Media, and two charges in relation to "colluding with foreign forces" under the national security law Beijing implemented last June. He could face life in prison for falling foul of those laws.
Lai, a frequent visitor to Washington, D.C., has met several times with senior American officials, including former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Lai has been in jail since last December after being arrested and denied bail for his national security charge.
"He's reading a lot," said Simon. "He's worried about his family's health every once in a while. But he's incredibly bored, and he would probably happy to be out of jail."
Earlier this month, Lai released a handwritten letter from prison: "It is precisely this that we need to love and cherish ourselves. The era is falling apart before us, and it is time for us to stand tall," it said.
Ho, the former lawmaker, and lawyer Martin Lee gave short comments outside the courtroom before being sentenced Friday amid shouts from both their supporters and pro-Beijing demonstrators. Ho was sentenced to one year.
"The most important thing is to continue to have hope, as long as there is hope, everything It will succeed," Lee said. He also told reporters outside the courtroom where he was sentenced that he had slept well the night before and was "at peace."
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Jimmy Lai, the Hong Kong publisher, received a one-year prison sentence today. Eight other veteran pro-democracy activists have also been sentenced, charged with participating in protests against the government back in 2019. NPR's Emily Feng is covering the story from Beijing. Hi there, Emily.
EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.
INSKEEP: I just want to remember - this is a guy who's been on the program who insisted on using his freedom of speech and was once a powerful man in Hong Kong. What's he been sentenced for?
FENG: He's still a powerful man. But these nine people, including Mr. Lai, have been sentenced for participating in two peaceful protests in August 2019. But they're accused of straying beyond the area that police authorized. And these protests were part of much bigger anti-government demonstrations that ripped through the Hong Kong region throughout much of 2019 and even into last year until the pandemic put a halt to the protests. About 10,000 people have been arrested for participating in those demonstrations. But what's notable about these nine people, including Mr. Lai, sentenced today is eight of them are above the age of 60. So these are really well-respected senior figures in Hong Kong's political landscape.
INSKEEP: Who are some of the other people, then?
FENG: There's Margaret Ng, who's 73, and Martin Lee, 82, both very famous lawyers who both got suspended sentences of 12 and 11 months, meaning they won't see time behind bars if they don't commit future crimes. All those sentenced except for Mr. Lai are former lawmakers. And these are people who are highly influential. They helped found political parties. They helped found businesses or, in Mr. Lai's case, a media empire. But these are people who Beijing is targeting now. And these nine people, though some of them are behind bars, they still tried to rally people today before the sentencing even though the number of activists like them outside of prison is dwindling. Here's Martin Lee speaking outside the courtroom today.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
MARTIN LEE: (Non-English language spoken).
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).
FENG: He's saying, "my spirits are peaceful. I slept well last night. The most important thing is to continue to have hope. And as long as there is hope, everything will succeed." So he remains optimistic. Mr. Lai, the publisher, though, is likely to have it much worse because this is just the first of several sentences he faces. He's been arrested four times in the last year on eight separate charges.
INSKEEP: Wow. And so what are the prospects for people like him who are - I mean, it's an older generation. It's a generation that remembers what the deal was supposed to be with Hong Kong when it went back to China.
FENG: Well, Mr. Lai says to many of his associates he knew he was going to be imprisoned one day. He still faces an outstanding fraud charge. He has two outstanding charges for helping another activist flee the region. And most seriously, he has two charges for, quote, "colluding with foreign powers" by asking foreign governments like the U.S. to sanction China regarding Hong Kong. This certainly means many more years in prison for Mr. Lai. I talked to Mark Simon, who is Mr. Lai's longtime business associate. Simon's in Taiwan because he actually faces criminal charges in Hong Kong.
MARK SIMON: The concern that I have is we are now entering into a mainland-type sentencing system. In other words, it's just the permanence of charges multiplied by consecutive sentences.
FENG: Lai actually released a letter in which he told followers, this is the time for us to stand tall.
INSKEEP: What do these sentences mean for the other 10,000 people who've been arrested.
FENG: It's a sign of how they might be tried. I mean, these people are out on bail. But they haven't seen the inside of a courtroom yet. And then there are about 100 other people who have been charged under a much more serious national security law, which carries a maximum sentence of life in prison if they're found guilty.
INSKEEP: NPR's Beijing correspondent Emily Feng. Thanks, as always.
FENG: Thanks, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.