HONG KONG - Five Hong Kong speech therapists were sentenced Saturday to 19 months in jail for conspiracy to publish seditious children's books that feature cartoons of sheep and wolves that prosecutors deemed anti-government.
The five were convicted on Wednesday under a colonial-era sedition law in a case denounced by rights campaigners as a "brazen act of repression", which the Hong Kong government has rejected.
The defendants, who pleaded not guilty, were accused of publishing three books featuring cartoons of sheep fighting against wolves.
District Court Judge Kwok Wai Kin said the defendants had to be punished "not because of the publication or the words but because of their harm or the risk of harm to the minds of children", saying the works sowed seeds of "instability".
"What the defendants have done to the children aged four and above was, in fact, a brainwashing exercise with a view to guiding the very young children to accept their views and values," Judge Kwok said.
Lorie Lai, Melody Yeung, Sidney Ng, Samuel Chan and Marco Fong, aged 26 to 29, were convicted by Judge Kwok, who was handpicked by the city's leader to try national security cases.
The books referred to events, including the city's mass pro-democracy protests in 2019 and the case of 12 democracy protesters who fled Hong Kong by speedboat in 2020 and were captured by the Chinese coast guard.
In one book, wolves want to occupy a village and eat the sheep that, in turn, start to fight back.
It is the first time a seditious publications case has gone to trial since the 2019 protests and the imposition of a national security law on Hong Kong by Beijing in 2020, which officials say is vital to restore stability.
One of the group's lawyers estimated that the five could be out in 31 days once deductions are made, including for the nearly a year they spent in jail awaiting trial.
Acknowledging they could soon leave prison, Judge Kwok asked the five "when you would leave the prison of your own mind".
Lai's mitigation was interrupted by Judge Kwok, who said "the court is not a place to make political speech".
"Everyone has the freedom of expression, but that does not equal absolute freedom," he said.
Before being stopped, Lai had said the core issue of the trial was freedom of speech, and "freedom with limitations is not freedom".
Defendant Yeung quoted the late US civil rights leader Martin Luther King, saying "a riot is the language of the unheard".
"I don't regret my choice, and I hope I can always stand on the side of the sheep," Yeung said.
Judge Kwok said in his verdict that "children will be led into the belief that the PRC government is coming to Hong Kong with the wicked intention of taking away their home and ruining their happy life with no right to do so at all", referring to the People's Republic of China.
The defendants were members of the General Union of Hong Kong Speech Therapists, which Judge Kwok said "was clearly set up for political purposes".
"The political situation appears to be calm on the surface but very volatile underneath," he said, describing the situation in Hong Kong after the national security law. REUTERS